MERRILL, Wis. – A Wisconsin Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter crew participated in a collaborative first responder search and rescue training exercise in southern Lincoln County Jan. 14.
Maj. Don Graham, commander of the Army Aviation Support Facility #1, said the Jan. 14 missing persons training scenario involved ground teams from the Trail Ambassador Program — part of a national organization promoting recreational vehicle and trail use — and representatives from the Merrill and Russell fire departments, Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“Teams got a chance to work on air-ground communications and development of a common operating picture for coordinating search efforts,” Graham said. “Our aircrew benefitted from the live ‘targets’ at the search location, which allowed them to use our forward-looking infrared system during the search.”
Forward-looking infrared is a thermal imaging camera that detects infrared radiation, generally from a heat source, and can display that information as video imagery.
Adam Harden, deputy administrator of the Sheboygan-based Trail Ambassador Program, said the Black Hawk crew found the missing people in the scenario — two fishermen without cell phones — within 10 minutes. This was much faster than the ground search conducted in the morning by ground crews with all-terrain vehicles.
Harden said they used a drone to simulate the Black Hawk during the morning training. The Russell Fire Department assisted in a simulated extraction with their tracked utility terrain vehicle (UTV).
“The exercise was prolonged without the air assets,” Harden said, “but was a very valuable training for our ground teams. This adjustment was a great chance for command and search-and-rescue teams to think on their feet and provided for extra radio communications training due to additional movements needed for the search.”
The afternoon scenario was a simulated rollover accident involving a UTV placed slightly off the trail, making it more difficult for ground rescue teams to locate the victims. The ground teams advanced on the location of the rollover by heading in the direction of the hovering Black Hawk helicopter and adjusting their GPS coordinates.
“This type of quick response from an air asset is key to future search and rescue emergencies, as it drives the ‘call early’ part home,” Harden said, citing the value of Wisconsin Emergency Management’s air coordination group.
“One phone call is all that’s needed,” Harden said. “While the Black Hawk couldn’t get there right away, once they did, they made quick work finding the victims.”
Poor weather kept the Black Hawk from flying earlier in the day, but even that setback proved valuable for its crew. They coordinated with Harden to modify the training and calculate how much fuel they would have available for training.
“When the aircraft launched, we weren’t sure we could get a hoist demonstration in, but they made it work the best they could with the time available,” Graham said. “The crew was calculating fuel while Sgt. Patrick Blaesing, the medic, worked with the EMS teams on the ground and stayed as long as they could before departing.”
The original plan called for searching for lost fishermen in the morning and evacuating an injured trail rider trapped under an overturned recreational vehicle in the afternoon.
Graham said the Black Hawk crew simulated a hoist rescue at the target location so ground crews could understand the wind and noise associated with such rescues. They also conducted a live hoist demonstration and trained with local first responders on how to prepare a patient for hoist and air transport and how to offload a patient from a helicopter for ground transport.
Harden said the hoist demonstration was “fantastic,” as Blaesing was lowered 75 feet from the Black Hawk to render medical care to the casualty. Responders learned how to prevent the litter-bound victim and Blaesing from spinning as they were hoisted up to the Black Hawk.