NEWS | July 22, 2015

New York Army National Guard aviators sharpen hoist skills with civilian agencies

By Sgt. Jonathan Monfiletto New York National Guard

CICERO, N.Y. - New York Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Stephen Tschiderer spent Saturday just hanging around.

Of course, Tschiderer (Pronounced shid-er-er), a flight medic in Company F, 1st Battalion, 169th General Support Aviation Battalion, was hanging about 150 feet in the air above Oneida Lake here.

Still, he said, it was a great way to spend a Saturday.

Tschiderer was the designated medic as the National Guard aviators conducted joint water rescue training with area volunteer fire departments and dive teams here. He went up and down repeatedly on the aerial hoist on board the UH-60 air ambulance helicopter.

The training was designed to allow the Army Guard aviators, five local fire departments, local sheriff marine patrols and the Coast Guard auxiliary to learn how to work together in the event of a flood or other natural disaster.

Using their rescue boats, firefighters pulled a victim - a mannequin with a life vest on - out of the lake and called for medical support from the National Guard. A helicopter hovered above the boat and lowered Tschiderer to the vessel to treat the victim and secure him in a stretcher to be hoisted back into the helicopter.

Being able to focus on the task at hand while hanging 150 feet off the ground, Tschiderer said, requires confidence both in oneself and in the gear.

"You have to trust your equipment," he said. "Everything that we do, I can hook up 15 times to that same hook, but it still comes down to is that cable going to break or not."

"That's hoist," he added. "That's what all of the flight medics do for us. That's what every crew chief does when they train. That's what every pilot has to do when they do their training. It's a whole crew, and everybody has to do it together."

The National Guard aviators also trained the first responders in how to "hot load" and "cold load" a helicopter.

Army medical evacuation helicopters typically conduct a "hot load" with the helicopter engines running, while civilian medical evacuation helicopters shut down the engines for a "cold load," explained, Staff Sgt. Charles Gabriel, one of the Company F flight medics.

This training helps the civilian first responders understand the differences, he added.

"It was an absolute pleasure to work not only with our own battalion and trying to get through that but working with the National Guard to see how they can work together with two very different agencies," said John Gates, a captain with the West Monroe Volunteer Fire Department.

To start the exercise, three UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters flew from Fort Drum - where the 1-169th and elements of the 42nd Combat Aviation Brigade are conducting annual training - to Riveredge Airpark near the northern shore of Oneida Lake.

On the grass airstrip, Soldiers led teams of firefighters through cold load training on how to properly load and unload a casualty onto and off from a military helicopter. The crews then performed hot load training with the same scenarios before the Black Hawks took off from the airstrip to begin their mission on the lake.

On the lake, five fire department boats rescued a mannequin from the water and transported it to the pier on Frenchman Island. From there, helicopter crews lowered a medic to the pier in order to put the mannequin on a Stokes litter connected to a hoist and lift the victim and the medic into the aircraft.

In the final iteration, the West Monroe boat retrieved a mannequin from the pier and a Black Hawk lowered Tschiderer onto the boat so he could put the victim on the litter and hoist him onto the helicopter.

For the aviation battalion, the training allowed pilots and crew chiefs alike to gain familiarity with flying over the water without reference points that would appear on land and with visual illusions that can affect the helicopter team, said Gabriels, the exercise planner.

"The water, the waves, stuff like that, give you a little bit of a visual illusion where you could be moving when in actuality the aircraft's stationery or vice versa," he explained. "You could get the illusion you're stationery when in actuality you're drifting one way or another."

He also said teams also typically use treetops for references, so flying at 150 feet and above provided an extra challenge in trying to position the hoist on the ground. The mission also gave the battalion an opportunity to work alongside civilian agencies as it would during stateside deployments.

"If we went to, say, a flood in Binghamton or another state emergency mission, a little bit of the preparation work we did this morning would pay off," Gabriel said. "They understand how the military operates, and we understand how they operate."

For the fire departments, Gates said the training allowed the battalion-sized element of rescue boats that supports the lake, Oneida River and outlying areas to prepare for a water rescue in a way that the departments do not normally get the chance to do.

Every year, Gates said, the fire departments see two or three boating accidents that require putting someone on a litter and extricating them from the lake and respond to 10 to 20 water-related calls annually. The departments do not often use a helicopter in their response, but the familiarization does help the firefighters.

"We do it all the time. We do a lot of victim extrication," Gates said. "We do get quite a few, sadly, accidents or people going into some kind of medical emergency out on the water."

He said the fire departments work with Air One and other civilian medical evacuation companies, so the training also gave firefighters another opportunity to work with another agency's command team and see how the two come together.

"Typically, the only time we go on the lake is when we're doing it," Gates said. "We don't ever get to do a controlled environment like this. ... We were definitely all about it, and that's what we want to do."

A real scenario, Gabriel said, could involve something on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or as small as a flooded farmer's field with the need to rescue someone from the ground into the air. A flooded area, as well as snow-covered ground, bring the same lack of reference points as a lake or other body of water does.

"It's good training for the pilots," he said. "Fortunately, it doesn't happen weekly that we're out on a natural disaster, but it seems to be frequent."

Eric Durr from New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs contributed to this report.