CHESTERFIELD, Va. – Virginia National Guard flight crews have worked with the Chesterfield County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Scuba Rescue Team for nearly a decade, developing Virginia’s Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team (HART). Since the program’s inception in 2011, the HART has deployed for hurricane response and flown countless hours over the waterways and landscapes of Virginia.
“It’s one of the highlights of my career,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Shane Leipertz, one of the HART’s helicopter pilots. “It’s very, very rewarding to see how far the program has come.”
The HART provides rotary-wing aviation rescue hoist capabilities. It can conduct aerial rescue evacuation in situations with a potential loss of life, limb or eyesight or significant property damage. Virginia’s aviators bring the capabilities of their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to the fight, while Chesterfield brings first responders with swift-water rescue training and other life-saving proficiencies.
When the partnership between Chesterfield and the VNG began, there was a lot to learn. The Virginians looked to other states with established HARTs, like South Carolina, to gain a better idea of how to make the program work in Virginia.
“Going back to the first couple of years, we didn’t have any equipment, we didn’t have any gear, we didn’t have anything,” said Lt. Graham Lathrop, training officer for Chesterfield Fire and EMS and long-time member of the HART. “In a sense, we were making things work as we went.”
Now, everything the HART does is standardized. The precise and careful sequence followed by HART members during hoist operations has lovingly been dubbed “The Dance.”
“Being a standardization instructor pilot, this HART training is all about safety and standards,” Leipertz explained.
Eight new technicians joined the HART this year, at a pace much faster than the original HART team members.
“It’s so well-established and it’s so well-refined,” said Lathrop. “What took us two years to do, they’re already into it two drills in, so the pace of this program has sped up so much, it’s amazing.”
Because the HART’s mission is so dangerous, training is a large part of what they do.
“This is probably the most dangerous thing that could possibly be done,” Lathrop said. “It’s the highest risk, lowest frequency event there is, and so you’ve got to focus on everything you can as often as you can.”
Mitigating risk for the HART comes down to standardized procedures, mutual trust and team cohesion, all of which are built and sustained through routine training. In November in Chesterfield County, the team trained at hoisting a stabilized patient and deploying a technician to package a patient for extraction.
“Once you get in the aircraft, you’re one up there,” said Justin D. Bennett, founding member of the HART and a training officer with Chesterfield Fire and EMS. “That speaks volumes to the amount of crew coordination inside the aircraft and the amount of trust the guys in the back and the pilots have in us and vice versa.”
After so many years of training together, everyone knows what the next move is, Bennett said. Still, they don’t allow their familiarity with the process to invite complacency.
“We look at every risk, and if something isn’t going right, we stop,” said Bennett. “We don’t cut corners, and that’s how we are where we are now.”
The longevity of the program is also due to leadership.
“For Chesterfield, being able to fund us taking on the eight new people, with all their gear (…), that goes back to the amount of respect and support we’re getting from Chesterfield,” Bennett explained.
Leipertz praised the "great influence and support from leadership" of the Virginia National Guard, "from the top down.”
In recent years, other states have visited Virginia to learn more about setting up their own HART. Lathrop and Bennett said the program is a good marriage of skill sets of the first responders and the National Guard’s rotary-wing capabilities.
“It’s probably been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done, and I’ve been so fortunate to be a part of it,” Lathrop said. “I never in my entire life thought I’d join the fire department and fly in a helicopter, but that’s how it happened.”