PETALUMA, Calif. – Volunteers from around the state attended helicopter safety and rescue training sponsored by the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) in partnership with the California National Guard and Napa and Marin County sheriff's offices.
The remote terrain of the Walker Creek Ranch, with steep canyons and brush, created a realistic environment for the more than 400 search-and-rescue personnel who attended Oct. 4-6.
The goal was to offer basic aircraft orientation for first responders, said coordinator Travis Wiley with the Napa County Sherriff's Office. The training included a mass casualty loading scenario with the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.
Cal Guard forces are trained and equipped to offer a full spectrum of search-and-rescue (SAR) capabilities.
"The relationship between Cal Guard and SAR is really uniquely close in California, I would say, more than anywhere else," Wiley said. "The Cal Guard makes an effort to connect with SAR teams throughout the state, and we're expanding training with orientation using their Black Hawks and Lakotas helicopters."
The Cal Guard's LUH-72 Lakota helicopter was used for night SAR training.
"A significant mission of the National Guard is SAR," said Maj. Jan Bender of the Deputy Joint Intelligence Office for the Special Operations Detachment-North and one of the state's Incident Assessment and Awareness (IAA) coordinators.
"When local resources are depleted, or a unique asset is needed, that's when the Cal Guard comes into play. Our interagency partners may not know what tools we offer until they experience them or see them in action," said Bender.
"For example, the Lakota has a sensor ball which offers infrared heat signatures - invaluable when dealing with vast expanses of terrain and searching for a specific object, like a stranded hiker," Bender said.
While the Cal Guard offers hoist capability and movement of patients and rescuers, the joint intelligence community plays a critical, time-saving role with information processing, assessment and dissemination in search-and-rescue operations.
"Overseas we call it intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. At home, these capabilities can be used in a different manner as Incident Assessment and Awareness, which offers rescuers the ability to see things that someone on the ground can't," said Bender.
"It's big-time important to have the Cal Guard support," said Wes Riggins, team leader for California Explorer Search and Rescue (Cal-ESAR). "This event offers great experience for people who have never had any aviation exposure, except what they see in the movies."
Riggins said Cal-ESAR and the California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) are direct resources for CalOES, which means they are called on first. Cal-ESAR responds to searches and other emergencies in Northern California, from the Fresno area to the Oregon border and east to Nevada.
Riggins said the training provided essential hands-on experience. For example, when the noise of a helicopter's rotors makes it impossible to hear, it's crucial to know hand signs to communicate with rescuers helping to carry a victim on a stretcher.
"You have someone's life who's going to be impacted, so you don't want to make mistakes," said Riggins. "If the search for someone goes longer than 72 hours, their survival rate drops to 6%. Time is your enemy, and the Cal Guard gives us back time."