It takes seconds to get into a life-threatening situation in the woods or on the water but a rescue can take hours or days. But thanks to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) Aviation Unit rescues can be shortened to just a few life-saving moments.
The unit specializes in removing victims from precarious situations. Dehydrated in the woods suffering a heat stroke and hours before first responders can get there, water and a medic can be dropped ‘on the line.’ Find yourself flying a paraglider into a cliff side tree out of reach of first responders, help is ‘on the line.’
Kirk Smith is a tactical flight officer with the aviation unit and he brought ALEA’s Huey helicopter and other team members to New Site to demonstrate the team’s capabilities in extracting victims to area first responders.
“Most all of our lifts are in the woods in tight, tight spots,” Smith said. “Even a spot you don’t think you can put a person. What happens is the rotor wash pushes stuff out of the way. We can get people out of holes that would be like the back of a pickup.”
Wayne Barlow is often at the end of the line being dropped in to rescue victims.
“If I can fit down between the limbs of a tree, I can do the rescue,”Barlow told first responders gathered in New Site Wednesday. “It is not necessary to carry them to a wide open space.”
Smith and Barlow have both been at the end of the line hanging under the helicopter at the end of the line with reluctant “passengers.”
“Would you rather take the hours to get out on foot or the few minutes on the line to be lifted out?” Smith said.
Both recounted stories of victims being miles from a road balking at being at the end of the line. First responders would then tote the victims for hours to get victims more help. Even first responders have balked at taking a ride out ‘on the line’ miles deep into the woods following a rescue.
“They called at the end of the day ready for the life,” Smith said.
Smith said the winch system in the Huey is safe.
“It is the same hoist the coast guard uses,” Smith said. “600 pounds is the limit. That is not on the cable but the actual winch itself.”
The unit also has a Bell 407 that is used to fly the governor and can be rigged to use for other purposes. It can be converted for use with a long line. The doors are removed and a rope is put through the helicopter hanging down about 150 feet. At the end of the line, Barlow or someone else will be lifted hanging below and lowered into a rescue. Another helicopter is also equipped with a Flir camera system to help in search missions.
When someone gets lost in the Talladega National Forest at night, the Flir system can be used to locate a victim and guide first responders on the ground but there won’t be someone ‘on the line’ until first light.
“We don’t do night rescues,” Barlow said. “We do send FLIR ships for night searches to locate them. We launch the next morning before daylight because we can fly in the dark.”
Some first responders got lifted ‘on the line’ at the demonstration through what the unit calls a “screamer seat.” It is a cloth vest that can easily be wrapped around a victim needing to be rescued. Barlow said this operation can allow about five rescues in 30 minutes with minor injuries.
“You are in it, kind of like a hammock,” Barlow said. “We like to do this most of the time because it is so fast.”
The unit also uses a Bauman bag for spinal and neck injuries.
“We have even used it with a dummy in training to use an autopulse system,” Barlow said. “We got it up to the airship and open up the bag and it is still providing good compressions.”
Barlow added his best advice for those who might not want a ride ‘on the line,’ “If you are scared of heights, just close your eyes.”