Hours of Boredom Punctuated by Moments of Sheer Terror

It was one of those cases of serendipitous timing, and why I find EMS so interesting as an avocation. This morning, I jumped out of bed to help a helicopter land on the highway.

Emergency Medical Services folks train all the time. To keep our certifications up, we’re required to get three full days of training every year — 24 hours, not counting breaks. Most recently, my wife and I spent an hour learning about medical evacuation helicopters. Our local chopper provider brought in a flight crew to brief us on operations, how to stay safe, and how to keep them safe.

Extra Dangerous

It’s hairy to land a chopper in the middle of an emergency scene; it leads to a “lot” of crashes. The medical chopper to the south of us, in nearby Durango (the next-in when our chopper is busy), crashed in 2005 — shortly after another training I attended. All three of the crewmen were killed: pilot Jim Saler, 40, a former Army Blackhawk pilot, had a wife and three daughters; flight nurse William Podmayer, 49, was married; firefighter-paramedic Scott Hyslop, 33, was married and had just adopted a son.

The cause was apparently the failure or improper installation of a fuel control unit — a simple, but critical, mechanical problem.

And that danger comes during the day: at night it gets really dangerous!

Imagine trying to see black power lines crossing a black highway below you, in the dark. Hit them and you die. The crew all have night-vision goggles, but that’s not that much insurance, so they depend on a landing officer on the ground to guide them in, and point out any hazards that they might not see. All the while, there’s a critical patient’s life in the balance. The bottom line: medical chopper crews, men and women alike, have balls!

Our local med-evac helicopter parked on hospital roof
Our local med-evac helicopter, parked on the roof of Montrose (Colo.) Memorial Hospital. It’s an AStar 350 (B3 High Performance version). Photo by Randy Cassingham

We asked a lot of questions and got the answers from the people who actually do the work. We got to touch the equipment (but no rides!), see how much room there is (not much!), and while up on the hospital’s roof, it even occurred to me to take a photo of our bird as the sun was setting behind us (above).

It was interesting, it was informative, and it was Tuesday last week. It was at least the third time I’ve done similar training over the years. This morning, that training came in really handy.

Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep!

My pager went off at 3:37 this morning. “I’ll bet it’s for us,” I said to my wife. Car crash … sounded bad … above Ridgway — nope: it was about 10 miles from us, and the ambulance was closer; we wouldn’t be helpful since lots of people would get there long before us. But it was interesting to hear the other members of the team head out to help, so we kept the radio on to listen, even though it was prime sleeping time.

One interesting update that we learned by listening: the crash was caused …by a bear! It apparently ambled in front of a car on the highway, and they either hit it and crashed, or swerved and crashed (but hit it anyway: the bear was injured, but still alive. Yikes!)

There are no deputies on duty at that hour, but The sheriff heard the call and headed there in a hurry to ensure the injured animal didn’t create a hazard for the victims or the rescuers.

EMS: Hours of Boredom Punctuated by Moments of Sheer TerrorThe next update from the dispatcher, prying information out of the cell-phone caller on the scene: there was more than the one, very-injured patient. The on-duty paramedic asked for a second ambulance, which is in addition to the extrication crew that rolls on all car crashes, and the fire department (and the sheriff and the State Patrol). Yeah, that is going to be one crowded scene. Glad we didn’t add to it.

Chopper on Standby

The chief paramedic also rolled, but jumped on the ambulance so her truck didn’t add to the chaos. When she heard the extent of the injuries, she asked for the chopper to be put on “standby.” That means the crew is awakened, they get dressed, cross the street over to the hospital, and take the elevator up to the roof and do their preflight checks. A lot of the time, they get canceled and it’s for nothing. But that’s part of the job, too.

The on-duty paramedic arrived first, and she started working on the critical patient. The first ambulance arrived and they quickly loaded the first two patients, and asked for the second ambulance to check on two more who were refusing transport.

The first ambulance took off for the hospital, “emergent” (aka “Code 3”) — lights and siren. Despite what you see on TV, rolling to the hospital with lights and siren is not routine. It’s a significant risk to roll fast, so we don’t do it unless someone’s life or limb is on the line.

Dispatch asked them what they wanted the chopper to do: launch, or stand down?

The answer: “Stand by.”

To Fly, Or…?

At least five minutes ticked by. “I can’t believe Dispatch hasn’t asked again about the chopper,” I said to Kit. Still nothing.

But a couple of minutes later, the ambulance asked Dispatch to launch the chopper immediately. They had been on standby for at least 20 minutes, wondering if they were going to fly out on a nasty call, or go back to bed.

Where to? Knowing where they were at that point, I realized it was either the Ridgway State Park (where there’s a big parking lot) or Colona, which is a tiny town at our County Line. “If they go to Colona,” I told Kit, “we’ll be rolling.” Colona is at the end of the county road we live on, 6 miles from our house. That was Kit’s cue to pee. She jumped out of bed.

The answer was Colona. The problem: every available cop in the county was still at the accident scene. We have a helicopter that needs to land (safely!), and no one to clear the road. Yeah, it was not quite 4:00 in the morning, but there’s still some traffic out there. I grabbed my radio and told the ambulance we’d be en route, arriving in 10 minutes.

I got dressed while Kit threw in her contact lenses. I still beat her to the car, so I made sure I had two good flashlights, and dug out the reflective vests from the back. She came out and we rolled. Once I got settled in for the drive, I had Kit dial the radio to the channel where the chopper would be (for you communications geeks: NLEEC, pronounced “en-leck” — the National Law Enforcement Emergency Channel).

First Step: Communications

I picked up the radio and called them: Do they want to land on the highway, is that their preference? Yes, was the reply. We’ll be there in 5 minutes, I told them; they said they’d be there in 3. “You’ll have to circle for a couple of minutes, then,” I said, since I was their landing zone contact. The ambulance would be there in 7. That would give the pilot time to check out where they wanted to set down.

There was one pair of tail lights a mile ahead of us. We finally caught up as we reached Colona, and they pulled over to let us pass. The helicopter was circling above us.

The procedure, which we reviewed on Tuesday, is to use your headlights to light up the spot you want them to land on, but they didn’t have my OK yet. They prefer two vehicles, crossing their headlights to mark the spot to land, but we didn’t have two vehicles available.

On the way down, I outlined to Kit what we would do: I’d block the southbound lanes with my car, and she would — by herself in pitch darkness, armed only with a flashlight and reflective vest — run down the side of the road and stop northbound traffic so the chopper could land between us in the clear. (She has guts too!)

The chopper pilot remembered there are no power lines crossing the road there — right? she asked me over the radio. I was pretty sure that was the case too, but I still swung my flashlight around 360 degrees to make sure-sure. I lit up the one pole in the area: “That’s the only pole,” I told the pilot over the radio, “and all of its lines go west” (away from the road). How’s the wind? “Very slight breeze.”

Then it was up to the pilot to decide the safest approach to land, and they did, leaving plenty of room for the ambulance to get fairly close.

About that time the ambulance came around a curve, and I told them to stop where Kit was. (Never, ever approach a just-landed chopper until they tell you to, period, even if they’re there for you.)

A car came around the curve behind the ambulance, and Kit went out to stop it. One had come up behind me, and I stopped it before the chopper landed, but I still looked behind me every few seconds to make sure no one tried to pass it and drive through the landing zone.

The Crew Gets to Work

Once they land and are sure no one is trying to run up to the helicopter, the chopper medics’ next job is to go to where the patient is and get briefed by the medic in charge of that patient. It would have been fun to go watch, but I still had a job to do.

I let Dispatch know the chopper was down safely, and walked back to the line of the now half-dozen cars and trucks and let them know how long the delay would be. (The first driver that Kit stopped asked her, “There’s another accident?!” — they had driven by the original scene! No, Kit told them, it was the same one!)

About this time Rich, another of my First Responder crew, arrived: need any help? “Yes,” I said, because he has red lights on his truck. “It would be good to have a marked vehicle at the other end where we have the road closed. You’ll find Kit down there.” He drove down, giving the chopper wide berth, and made himself obtrusive.

Then the pilot walked down to me to say thanks. They hadn’t been told much, so I filled her in: the bear, the location 20 miles away, etc. We could have flown to the scene! she said. “I know,” I said, but I’m sure our chief paramedic had a good decision tree for doing it this way; I’m guessing it saved a good 20 minutes on the transport.

The chopper took off with the patient, and the ambulance continued on to the hospital — they still had the other, non-critical patient to take for treatment. We opened the road up for the traffic, went home, and went back to sleep!

Why a Chopper?

At the county line, we are only about 12 minutes from the closest hospital, the same hospital where the chopper parks. So why did we need a helicopter for such a short trip? That hospital is a small one: they have no neurologist to handle head injuries. The closest hospital with a neurologist is 65 miles beyond, in Grand Junction.

And that’s where our patient this morning was taken; it’s not about “the closest hospital” but rather “the closest appropriate hospital.” Had the ambulance taken the patient to the closest hospital, they would have quickly transferred them to “Junction” …by the same helicopter. All of this was going through our chief’s head as she was deciding what to do, and when.

My only regret this morning: when it was quiet, I forgot to take any photos of the chopper on the highway!

It’s Why I Love This Job

We might be called out to a man who’s dead — unless we can change that. Or a girl who fell off a cliff. Or a simple medical problem, or directing a helicopter to land in the middle of the highway that you’ve secured for them. You never know what it’s going to be, or even whether you can really make a difference.

And that’s why I love it: it’s always different, it’s always interesting, and it’s usually a challenge to be overcome.

Me with my well-equipped SUV, ready to go
My SUV just got back from the shop last Wednesday, 23 days after being crashed on a previous call. (Hey, I did say there were risks!)

Related: The crash story.

The experiences even help me in my Day Job, writing a “social commentary” feature: I get to see people as they really are, stripped of pretense (and often clothing) at what could be the worst moment of their lives, a literal fight to stay alive. You can’t help but to learn about people as they really are when you’re privileged to be there to help them at that critical time. And you know what? I’ve learned that in general, people are pretty darned cool.

And, sometimes, you really can make a difference: helping that life to continue so they can see their kids or grandchildren grow up.

It truly is a privilege to get paged out of sleep, or work, or the shower, or whatever because someone really needs help, and Right Now. And it’s a true honor to be part of a team who makes such a huge difference — and do it as volunteers. That’s how a large part of EMS, and firefighting, and even in some cases police work, is done: by your neighbors, volunteering.

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47 Comments on “Hours of Boredom Punctuated by Moments of Sheer Terror

  1. Cool! Thank you and Kit for preparing, waking up, listening, and responding in someone else’s time of need! People like you make this country GREAT!

  2. Randy, thanks to you, Kit and Rich for the assist! Having you there ahead of us to take command of the LZ was a huge benefit!

    Greg, one of the Ridgway ambulance crew, was training a new ambulance driver this morning — on her second call ever! Now that’s a baptism by fire! -rc

  3. Way to go, Kit & Randy! Goes to show, volunteers are KEY in this part of the world! I admire your ability to THINK at 4AM. NOT my forte’!

    Lynne was in our EMT class several years ago, not because she wanted to work on the ambulance, but because she wanted to learn what to do in medical emergencies — she lives in a very rural area. -rc

  4. It always amazes me that whatever we do a training on, it seems like that exact thing happens in the next few days. Do a hare traction training and someone breaks a femur. Do a CPR refresher and you get a cardiac arrest. Premonition? Or just attention?

    I had to look up Belulah: Pueblo County, south-central state. Anyway, I haven’t seen that myself, Nathan. The chopper training, for instance, is at least the third one I’ve done, but this is the first time I’ve needed it. But sometimes trainings are set up at specific times for a reason. Carbon monoxide poisoning training tends to come as winter sets in, when people fire up their furnace or bring in a charcoal grill to keep the house/tent/cabin warm. So I’m sure that accounts for some of the perception. -rc

  5. Most people have no idea of the preparation it takes to do your job. They are just grateful you are there. My only problem was not always knowing the outcome of the call. Only did one helicopter transfer for a burn patient, but it was in a bad thunderstorm. My respect extends to the volunteer crew that flew that LifeFlight. I hope I never need your help, but thanks for being there.

  6. You helped a helo crew do their job safely, and I thank you for that from this faraway place. My older son is a chopper pilot and I hope there are some Randys and Kits for him when he needs them.

  7. By the time I read your final sentences about it being a privilege to be woken up by the pager, I was blinking away tears.

    Thank you Randy, Kit, Greg, and all the others who give up sleep and comfort because someone somewhere needs you. For me, you exemplify what I love about humanity.

  8. There’s a Care Flight chopper station right down the road from us, and a biker buddy of ours is a mechanic for them. Occasionally we’ll hear it take off in the evening. Never gave any thought about it before but, yeah, power lines, trees, and other obstructions would definitely be a problem, ESPECIALLY in the dark. Fascinating stuff.

    Imagine a Navy pilot, in an ocean of thousands of square miles, trying to land on maybe 4 acres of flight deck that’s only 7 stories above the water, and not just anywhere on the flight deck, but exactly on a certain track to catch the arresting wire. To make it more fun, it’s hitting that tiny acreage at 150 mph and has to stop in less than 500 ft, being a 30-ton vehicle.

    So I can only imagine the stress of the EMS equivalent of an Aviation Bosun’s Mate to make sure the pilot, crew, and equipment gets down safely (and back up). Love the slogan. A salute to Major Pappy Boyington.

    Taking off is a lot easier than landing. The most impressed I’ve been by CareFlight was another call I listened to: an accident in the mountains above Ouray in a very-hard-to-get-to spot. Chopper landed as the sun went down, and the Ouray Mountain Rescue crew took a couple of hours to get the patient something like 300 ft to the chopper, which took off with the patient at midnight. As far as I know, that patient lived, too. -rc

  9. Two years ago, we had a bad accident out in the country, and my wife was evacuated from the scene by helicopter. Without them, and the volunteer ambulance personnel from the closest town, she wouldn’t be here today. 25 minutes flight time each way, plus getting her from the car to the helicopter, they got her to the hospital just within the ‘golden hour’.

    That 25 minutes of flight time probably means two-three hours (or more) to drive her to the hospital in the ambulance. No more “golden hour”! -rc

  10. Plan and drill for the worst and hope for the best.

    I spent 8 years in the U.S. Navy in the nuclear power field. Tons of mandatory procures and tons of drills on almost everything.

    All the “emergencies” I ran into were very routine, but the constant drilling and training we’d done made them routine.

    People getting training, like Randy and Kit, make the difference between life and death to many people. Now (to the best of my knowledge), all their work is voluntary.

    These are the kind of people who we can hold up as good examples of excellent citizens.

  11. Filling in some blanks — from the ambulance crew’s perspective.

    First, some brief background: My role on this shift was to train a rookie in the finer points of ambulance driving. My student and I had run part of a call the night before. (It happens, occasionally, in a volunteer organization, that some crew members meet the ambulance on scene, so my student’s only experience was driving to the hospital and back; all non-emergent.) Then we had the fire department dance, which lasted until 2:00 am. I had been asleep about half an hour when the call Randy described came in. I was a little fuzzy, and training a newbie (although a newbie who proved herself to be highly competent) in emergency response.

    We were the second unit on scene, and the first was staffed by a single person who had her hands full. It was up to me to coordinate the response of those following us, and relay instructions to them, and ensure my student properly positioned the ambulance, while ensuring my fellow responders were safe on the side of a state highway with an injured bear nearby.

    Once we departed the scene, I still had logistical issues to coordinate with the crews on scene. My fuzzy mind was already approaching saturation when I got the word: Chopper go. When a helicopter is dispatched to the scene, timing is unimportant. They get there as fast as they can, land, load, and go. A rendezvous requires finding a landing zone that will allow ambulance and helo to arrive at roughly the same time, to ensure waiting time is minimized.

    I had several things to do in a short period of time. Estimate a meeting place, get an ETA from the chopper to confirm it is in fact “in the middle,” find GPS coordinates in my map book in case the helo didn’t know where “Farmer Johnson’s barn used to stand before the lightning strike,” and then get on scene to secure the LZ as Randy described it.

    You see, it didn’t occur to me that they would respond to assist. In fact it SHOULD have occurred to me to request their help, but, as I indicated, I was “a bit fuzzy.” When I heard “Responder 1 enroute to assist,” I experienced an almost audible “click,” as the realization dawned that I had help. And that is the essence of the comradery that we enjoy in The County.

    Thanks for filling in some of the details, Greg! I don’t listen to the radio when it’s a middle-of-the-night call to Aunt Mabel’s house, but I do when things sound pretty hairy, so feel free to put out a call to any of the First Responder Corps when you need help. It would have sucked to secure the LZ by yourself after arrival, not to mention delaying everything, so we were happy to lend a hand. Another smooth operation! -rc

  12. Kudos to you and Kit for being ready and willing to go out on a moment’s (or, in this case, several minutes) notice to help others.

    I have never been at the site of a LZ for a copter, but I have seen the closest one to us up close and personal (Life Lion out of Penn State Milton S Hershey Medical center in Hershey, PA) at a demonstration once. We have been trying to get our girl scout troop over there to get a tour of the whole facility, but something keeps coming up.

  13. What a story. I point friends and family in your direction any time they “balk” at volunteers. I really appreciate all they do. We live in the “sticks” here and when my last son was born, responders from the three counties arrived to make sure he was alright. (We were supposed to make it to town but our son had other ideas!)

  14. Our situation here is a bit different from yours, Randy. We recently transitioned from city fire department crewed ambulances to a private ambulance company. Coincidentally, at the same time the regional air ambulance service stationed one of their birds at our airport. Oh, and our hospital is decently staffed and equipped with most of the state of the art equipment, we just lack the high-powered specialists who couldn’t make a go of it in a small city such as ours.

    But I am hearing a lot of “If in doubt, launch” decisions. Without going into a lot of second-guessing which would not be fair, I’m just wondering what you think. Are medical helicopters being called in too often? Are patients that would have been treated by the local hospital in years past being shipped off to regional Level One Trauma Centers by medivac choppers because it is easier and quicker to do now?

    There again, it’s hard to second guess the medical officer on scene just by listening to the radio; and the level of calls would be expected to go up once the flying time was cut 35-45 minutes by having a helicopter locally-sited, it just seems that there are way more launch calls than even the previous factors would account for.

    Yes, there is pressure to use the ever-increasing numbers of medical choppers, which I think does result in their being used too often. They’re hugely expensive, but there’s no question they can save lives. It’s a difficult decision to make, and the people on the ground who have to make the decisions should be trusted to make them without being second-guessed. -rc

  15. Thanks for the response and for your explanation of all you did, Randy. It honestly had never occurred to me how important it would be to have someone on the ground to “spot” for the helicopter, but of course it makes perfect sense and I’m sure vastly lessens the danger for the chopper crew. It sounds like your rural area is well-served by its emergency responders at all levels. While there are disadvantages to living far away from so-called civilization at times, the advantages, such as the entire community’s willingness to pull together to help each other out, far outweighs it!

  16. Glad you are there to help when needed.

    Last night I had the usual fire pair (rescue and a main truck) go by me, and was a little surprised by how poor the front strobe configuration was on the leading rescue truck. Standing on the opposite shoulder of the road (covering the ears is nice when those things go by) watching it approach from the crest of the hill above me, I almost could not see the strobes /at all/ until it was practically beside me. Being on a bicycle, there was of course no windshield to obscure anything either, and I don’t wear glasses, coloured or not. If I hadn’t essentially known what it was, I’m not sure I would have ever visually recognized it from the front in the darkness.

    Clear warning signals are vital, and I’m amazed they haven’t done a better job in the 21st Century. That’s asking for an accident. -rc

  17. It has been about thirty years since reading that 80% of the fire fighters in the US are volunteers. Back then urban areas were starting to train EMS personel. Plus when dispached they were in radio contact with the ER doctor.

    My hat is off to you, Kit and all volenters in the country.

    As of 2010, in the U.S. 70% of firefighters were volunteers (Source: NFPA). Still a huge majority. (2015 update: the number now is …70 percent volunteer.) -rc

  18. Wow, I had never considered all of the people, facilities, special skills etc. needed for an accident! Not only was the story itself great, but the way you told it held my attention!
    Thanks to you volunteers, thanks to readers who added more to the story. Thank you for opening my eyes.

  19. Job Well Done, Sir! Congratulations and thanks to you and all your crew. I am glad it all worked out safely. A fantastic story (I read all the links and the other stories), and a very well told one. You should consider doing a book on just the Cop, EMT, and emergency rescue stuff, Randy. I think it would sell. Again: Thank you for your dedication and bravery. And that pic of you by your SUV, is really neat. Take care.

    I was thinking the photo was a bit corny (but obviously I used it anyway!) Thanks for the feedback. -rc

  20. A fascinating story — reminds me of the (very) briefing we had on helicopter ops. Can’t remember if it was in the Air Force (in Sweden) or the Air Cadets (in the UK), but interesting nonetheless. Do you marshal them in, or just clear the LZ and let them handle the rest?

    By the way, there are collapsible cones available (some illuminated) that allow you to have a dozen cones in the boot in a space roughly the size of… well, a small traffic cone, so they’re easy to keep in the car just in case. Might be worth looking into — it sounds like they’d make your life a bit easier in situations like that.

    We just clear the LZ and let them do the rest, but are always at the ready to call “ABORT ABORT ABORT!” over the radio if necessary. The cones sound interesting, but not for choppers: they make a LOT of wind. -rc

  21. I think these “True” accounts are very interesting and very exciting; can you add accounts like this, maybe once weekly, to ThisIsTrue? There must be many other FirstResponder teams that have similar accounts for you to publish.

    I’m glad you enjoy them. But a weekly report would essentially be another publication, and I’m already working too many hours: I’m trying to cut back, not add on. -rc

  22. Does your property and casualty insurance company let you pay normal rates or do you have to pay commercial rates for your vehicle? Here in Georgia, one can expect to pay an extra $500 a year for the privilege of volunteering. Just curious. Pardon me for asking.

    I did call my agent when I added the equipment to my car, and he had to check, and replied that it made no difference to my policy. They paid the claim on the crash without comment, too. -rc

  23. As an ex-Paramedic and retired Medical Director, I have to say, “Well done”. It sounds like your outfit has the training, personnel and communications to make a difference when it counts.

    If I’m ever up in your corner of Colorado, I’d like to shake everyone’s hand. You’ve got a real professional operation.

    I’d be pleased to introduce you to the team, doc! -rc

  24. I love to hear your emergency response stories, and I want to thank all of the people that put in the time, training and effort to be there for us.

    But I’m really curious to know — What happened to the bear? I’m sure that the people on the scene have an amazing story.

    And to Karen: This is always going to be a hard choice. There are multiple risks to both driving and flying. But I am confident to put myself in the hands of the first responders. The medics simply can’t get complete information and they will need to make a judgement call. I know they are human, and not perfect. But I also know that this is a crew of people who put the welfare of others first. I’m good with trusting their call.

    I don’t know what happened to the bear, but I know what’s likely: whether it was injured enough to be dangerous or injured enough to be suffering (and after being hit by a car on the highway, it was surely “injured enough”), it was, sadly, likely shot. -rc

  25. After reading the UK advice on the warning cones I would think that even the flight crew would be helped by a set of reflective cones staked at the edge of the road to not only warn ongoing traffic but to easily, cheaply, and safely mark out a LZ at night if the crew wears IR gear a small heater in each like hand warmers or such would show against backrounds to insure proper placement at landing. Not being an inventor I don’t really know if such an idea is feasible or just so much wounded beard crap but it maybe worth bucking up the line someones gotta know. Hopefully someone may make a few dollars. It is america after all. 😉

    It ain’t gonna happen. I’ve had occasion to use them once in 12 years — and even then I didn’t actually need them. And even if I had them, I wouldn’t have had time to deploy them. IR wouldn’t work, either: night vision goggles amplify light, not heat; IR cameras are a different beast, and are more likely found on police choppers. -rc

  26. Clear warning signals are vital, and I’m amazed they haven’t done a better job in the 21st Century. That’s asking for an accident. -rc

    Almost more surprising, is that while they got the lights right on the front of the fire truck, it always /follows/ the rescue. If they’re going to fail lighting on either, it seems it ought to be the follower — not that it’s any excuse for bad lighting when a little common sense would suffice to get it right.

    Actually, there was a trifle of strobe visible. Probably because I was looking for it, I could see some strobe reflected off other forward facing parts, but the light was outshone by the main steady lights. I sure wouldn’t want to be a deaf person having them come up behind me.

    Good point. And no, each vehicle needs to have adequate warning signals, not just the lead: not only because it can’t be guaranteed that a vehicle won’t travel alone, but because once one passes through an intersection, drivers need to clearly be aware that the next vehicle is on an emergency too, and needs to wait for it to pass. Otherwise they could pull in front of it, with disastrous results. -rc

  27. Just this afternoon I watched Life Flight coming in for a landing next door at the hospital. We’ve been having gusting wind all day and just at the last minute the ‘copter had to abort and circle around again. Dangerous job, but I sure like watching them take off and land.

    Thanks Randy, Kit and Greg!

  28. We have a set of LED landing lights included in our VFD equipment. It has been a while sense we discussed them, but I believe there are three red and one white in the set. It lets you set up a safe perimeter and the white for the direction chopper should land. It sounds like you wouldn’t have had time for them on that call but they could be handy if your group had a set.

  29. Great story: suspence and information alike. Thanks for sharing.

    I hope not to sound too out-of-your-world, but why are so many EMS and firefighters volunteers? Rural areas (hence sparse population) are difficult to man, but the service you provide is something really valuable! So why is there no (not any) financial reward on this? To me it implies a low priority on these services by the government (less than let’s say senator’s wages), or even a demeaning attitude towards EMS.

    NL is a different country (more populated), so the decisions here are made in a different mindframe. Please help me understand.

    A less dense population also equates to lower tax revenues. We have about 4,400 full-time residents in not quite 550 square miles. Even though we have nearly the lowest tax rates of any developed country (chart), we are almost pathological in wanting them even lower. So indeed there is no money to pay firefighters and EMTs. When we run a call, we get a small stipend to pay for our gasoline and such — but only if there is a transport, which means someone is getting billed for an ambulance ride. -rc

  30. For Marjory, Netherlands: More volunteers also helps with having enough people show up when a call goes out. Not everyone can respond every time.

  31. WOW, what an amazing story! Bless you, your wife, and all the EMS/EMT workers and volunteers for being there for all of us!

  32. Just a quick note to say thanks to Kit and yourself for being volunteers. Without you and others like you around the country, some of us wouldn’t be here. Thanks again.

  33. Thanks to all EMS responder for your dedication to helping people when they need help NOW! In July of 2006, I was seriously injured from a motorcycle accident in the mountains of West Virginia (a very remote area). Without a doubt, the first responders and helicopter crew saved my life that day. I’ve often pondered how I could ever possibly thank them enough or repay that debt. I can’t. I can only “pay it forward” and try to help others like those wonderful people helped me when I was struggling near death by the side of that mountain road. They not only saved my life, but taught me how to LIVE life fully — by helping others at every opportunity.

    Although I am neither a paramedic nor other medical professional, now each new day begins with a few simple questions: What can I do today to help another person? How can I honor the people who worked so hard to allow me to still be here today? How can I improve somebody else’s life today? Through it all, I’ve learned that small deeds can often make a big difference if we only seek out opportunities to help one another.

    Randy, what you do every day — as a volunteer first responder AND with your online publications — is no small deed. You and Kit exemplify the best of humanity. You make a difference. Indeed, you (and people like you) really do make the world a better place! Thank you for that!

    P.S. – After reading about your experience clearing the LZ for that helicopter, it strikes me that all the “behind the scenes” responders to my crash must have faced a logistical nightmare on that mountain pass. I honestly never gave much thought to HOW that helo managed to land and evacuate me safely in such rugged terrain, which just goes to show that EMS is truly a team sport played by many unsung heroes every day.

    Good insight. And while you can’t “thank them enough,” it’s not too late to thank them directly, if you haven’t. We often wonder “what happened” with our patients, but after handing them off to definitive care, we often never hear. Jotting a note to the crews is great, stopping by to see them is better. -rc

  34. This reminded me of two stories.

    The first was of my mother, several years ago. My husband and I have lived overseas for several years now. About seven years ago, when I was in China, I got a sudden email saying my mom was in the hospital. A few days later I was able to talk to her and find out what had happened.

    She had been driving through her home town and had been driving through an intersection right after the light changed when someone going the other way decided to run the light. At the time, Mom had a minivan, but the car that hit her was a big pickup, driven by someone going way too fast.

    Like the person in your story, Mom was badly injured — a head injury. The local hospital was less than ten minutes away, but they couldn’t handle the case. They flew her to a bigger hospital in Kansas City, where she could be treated.

    That’s the problem with living in the countryside, of course. The local hospital can’t handle everything. But they were able to get her out of there and she was, I’m happy to say, completely fine. It completely blew her trip to visit us in China that year, but she got to go to Japan a few years later to meet her first grandson.

    And that brings me up to the next story. My second son was only a few months old when he came down with a cold courtesy of the preschooler older brother. It wasn’t a typical cold — it was RSV, which for us adults and older little kids (like the preschooler) is just a cold, but for a two month old baby is VERY dangerous. He looked ragged and quiet and I took him to the doctor thinking he’d need meds.

    I was very shocked when the doctor told me very frankly he had bronchiolitis, that he needed to be checked into the hospital because what he had could be fatal without treatment, and most importantly, that the local hospital did not have the equipment to handle a two month old. So while my husband was at work and my older son was at preschool, my baby was put on an oxygen feed, an IV, and an O2 monitor and we were bundled into an ambulance. The doctor came with us — as I said, we live in Japan, but my kids’ pediatrician not only speaks fluent English, he knows us. He came with us to watch my son the whole way.

    It was a terrifying trip. I don’t know the exact rules about lights and sirens here, but I do know they ran the lights and sirens the whole way, and a drive that normally takes over two hours took about 80 minutes, with the doctor intently watching the O2 monitor and talking over the radio to the doctor at the hospital we were going to.

    Again, the end of the story is happy. He spent only five days in the hospital, the first two very scary, but he recovered at amazing speed. They had told me to expect him to be in the hospital for weeks. But that hospital ride was one of the most terrifying trips of my life!

    I’m grateful that there are some good folks in the world like you, Randy. Especially when you live in smaller towns, it’s critically important the infrastructure is in place to handle things like this. I’ve lost family over the years, but in these cases, I still have family because the people were there and made sure everything was okay.

  35. Before moving to a city served by a full-time fire department, I used to volunteer with my rural FD. Although I never had the opportunity to assist with a helicopter evacuation, I’ve had the training and remember many a time getting called out, in all kinds of weather wondering if that was the day I would need to use it.

    Thanks to you and your wife for taking the time to volunteer, so many do not!

  36. I used to Monitor NLEC on my 2 meter rig from time to time. Some interesting traffic but mostly boring.

    But then I used to monitor it at work as well. Professionally.

    A “2 meter rig” is a ham radio. Yeah, the mutual aid channels are usually pretty boring — punctuated occasionally by something really interesting. -rc

  37. Every time I read a helicopter medevac story, I think of my dad. He was a pilot who flew everything from crop dusters to Beavers to airliners, and also an AME (Aviation Maintenence Engineer) who did everything from recreating a German WWI biplane from the blueprints to maintaining jets. His cohorts said of him that, if it was a fixed wing (i.e. airplane), he could either fly it or fix it, and usually both. His only regret was that he’d never checked out on a copter.

    In his later years, he developed heart disease. He needed a heart bypass, which became a quadruple bypass, which developed complications. He had to be medevacced from our small city to a hospital that specialised in his condition.

    When, eventually, he improved enough to ask where he was and how he got there, I was the one in the room to explain the medevac by helicopter. Sick as he still was, he was still pilot enough to roar, “I WAS FLOWN IN A HELICOPTER? WHY THE HELL DIDN’T THEY WAKE ME?”

    Hah! I would have liked your father. -rc

  38. As a truck driver, I have been first-on-scene twice in my life (never a pretty sight). Boy, was I ever happy when trained help showed up.

    Randy, it’s people like you, both volunteers and full-time professionals, who help save lives all over the world.

    Thanks!

    And thank YOU for being willing to stop to help. So many just pass on by. -rc

  39. To Karen in OK: Are medical helicopters called too often???

    Ask the pilots…The ones around here say ‘if you even THINK you MIGHT need us… CALL. If we are not needed we will go home. WE LOVE TO FLY’

    They say that here, too. That doesn’t mean they’re not used too often, though, or that there aren’t too many such choppers. They’re great when they’re really needed, but if there are too many, then none will be able to stay in business for the long haul. -rc

  40. As a former EMT and CPR Instructor, I enjoy your stories as they bring back some of the excitement, terror, joy, sorrow and relief I experienced for well over ten years. Before incurable became so common I used to say my hobby was waking up at 3:30am, going to a stranger’s house and letting him vomit in my mouth. It’s a weird hobby but about the only thing that a disparate group of members, all volunteers, had in common.

    Our motto should have been “When seconds count, we’re just minutes away”. This sad but true statement is alleviated somewhat when you have a large number of trained, able, equipped and willing volunteers sprinkled throughout your catchment area.

    Thank you.

    There’s no reason anyone should vomit in your mouth — if you have the equipment you need, anyway. It has never happened to me. -rc

  41. Let me add my thanks to those of the other commenters. You may recall, just after you recerted, I wrote to let you know you had inspired ME to take yet another EMT class — 15 years after my previous license expired (and thank you for the nudge, too). Our squad has several sets of the LED landing lights, one on the rescue itself, and three with the most available responders (including yours truly). They do make a difference, according to the local crews, and they’re not that expensive. I think Gall’s has them.

    I’m surprised at one thing, though: this would have been a prime opportunity to suggest that your readers take a CPR/AED/First Aid course. The 6-9 hours (depending on program) can mean the difference between a fatality and someone surviving till the EMS crew arrives. Courses are available through the Red Cross, American Heart Association and many others. Your local Fire Department or EMS agency can steer you to local training provides.

    One other thing people can do… If the PD/FD/EMS/Good Samaritan says “the road is closed due to an accident,” DON’T argue the point. “I only live a half-mile the other side of the crash” isn’t going to magically give you a clear route home. Just deal with the delay.

    I can’t always draw every conclusion in every write-up. I have to let the body of work be the complete story. -rc

  42. That was such a well rounded and interesting short story, very informative too. Add more from where you live and your EMS buddies around the country and/or world and it would be a great book. A collection of EMS stories I would buy. Just my 2 cents worth. Take care and thanks for all your hard work to keep us safe and entertained.

  43. Great story. I agree with butch in Texas that a collection of such stories would make a hell of a book.

    Having had family members who, in dire circumstances, have required EMT assistance, I have always been especially grateful for their being comforting while remaining professional and swift. Occasionally, if I run across EMTs on their lunch breaks I will take a second to extend appropriate kudos to them for their service.

    Upon viewing the picture of you standing by your SUV I realized that you are a big guy. What is your height, please? Do you think that your size subconsciously gives your “patients” additional confidence in your abilities? I’ll bet it does.

    You and your team keep up the good work and know that you are greatly appreciated!

    I’m 6’3″. I’ve never thought that my size affects anyone’s perception of confidence, but being very calm certainly helps. There are books of such stories, but I’ve not read any of them, so can’t say which I’d recommend. -rc

  44. Thank you and Kit for being there! I was stopped in traffic once for an accident when they brought in the medivac on the freeway. Fascinating to see it all in action and kudos to those involved — I sure hope the person was ok! Also, very efficient crew all around!

    The delay was only about 20-30 mins total (helo wasn’t there yet when they stopped traffic).

    The local medivac came in very low on labor day. It circled the area including my yard (I happened to be outside). I don’t know if they were scouting out an area to land or taking up time until their landing site was ready, but then continued north. There is a park with a large lake about a mile crows flight from me, I assumed since the helo was on a direct line for the park after circling, something happened there, but I dont know for sure. Unfortunately, something happens there each year, usually water related.

    About 10 mins before the medivac, fire trucks and rescue, ambulance and police cars went down the road in full lights/siren and very fast.

    Not related other than flying: it gave me more than a pause this weekend. Heard a VERY loud plane, went to the back door, a fighter jet was flying low and slow. Told my husband, he said they did a fly-by over the UM stadium for the game (I don’t follow football so didn’t know). I thought for sure a jet was going down — it was that loud, most thankfully not!

  45. I learned to fly helicopters to write for Airwolf. Yeah, I do like to research the important stuff — and I do love to fly. I became a student member of the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association here in Southern California and have heard a number of “hangar tales” (and many more when the International Heli Expo is in Anaheim or LA).

    So, when I found myself at a dead stop northbound on the Long Beach Freeway (I-710) just north of Imperial Highway — about two miles to the next off-ramp — and saw absolutely no traffic on the southbound side, I knew the accident ahead must be horrendous. Martin Luther King hospital had a top-rate trauma center at the time, and was only about 10 minutes away by ambulance. Bringing in a medevac chopper meant at least one victim who needed even more specialized help.

    People around me had stopped their engines and gotten out of their cars, trying to figure out how long the delay would be. (This was before everyone and their kid had a cell phone.) I got out and explained that if a helo were being brought in, the situation was extremely dire. “Is that what’s happening?” most of them asked. They hadn’t understood the significance of the complete lack of traffic on the southbound side.

    Just then, the helicopter showed up, carefully orbited the site a couple times — there are high-tension wires paralleling the freeway on the west side — and set down neat as can be on the pavement. Transfer took only a few minutes and the chopper was back in the air, passing over our heads. Looking up, I saw the logo for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles on the bird, and pointed it out to the others standing near me. “There’s a kid in there,” I said, and I wasn’t the only one with damp eyes, praying for a good outcome in a bad situation.

    Soon enough, three other ambulances rocketed southbound — the child had been the first one extricated — and the Highway Patrol began opening lanes for traffic to start moving again. The total stoppage was about half an hour for me, and I learned a bit more about the accident on the TV news. (The child was in critical condition with possible brain injury/spinal injury — but ultimately made a full recovery, thanks to the quick transport to one of the best pediatric trauma facilities in the country.)

    I’ve written this great long thing to provide a contrast to your story — urban/rural and paid/volunteer. I am one of those people who has to explain everything, so I’d like to think I held off some impatient people who might’ve done something rash to get out of the traffic jam. (Freeway shoulders are full of nasty bits of debris, lots of them sharp. The last thing CHP wants at an already messy accident scene is half a dozen people with multiple flats needing even more tow trucks on-scene.)

    I am thankful for the professionalism of my local EMT/firefighters, having been dragged out of the narrow confines of the family abode with a pulmonary embolism five years ago — and I’m glad that there are so many volunteers like you and Kit serving the greater, less populated portions of the country.

  46. Medivac helicopter accidents seem to be fairly frequent; two have occurred at hospitals I worked in. One helicopter crashed upon takeoff from University Hospitals in 2002. Emergencies don’t always happen in good weather; wind conditions were considered partly to blame. A couple of years ago, a transplant team in Michigan died when their plane crashed. RIP

    Yep, there’s no “Sheer Terror” if there’s no risk involved. It’s serious business. -rc

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