By Pat Jenkins
All eyes were on the helicopter hovering above Swanson Field. For once, its arrival wasn’t a matter of life and death.
The Airlift Northwest aircraft was participating in a training exercise at the town of Eatonville’s airport with local fire departments. Twenty-two firefighters and paramedics from Eatonville Fire and Rescue and South Pierce Fire and Rescue received a refresher course on safety and the most efficient patient transfers involving medical evacuations by air.
The session June 3 was the latest of the annual updates. It was the first time the assembled first-responders were seeing up-close a helicopter with a rear door instead of a side door for loading patients, a feature of Airlift Northwest’s newer aircraft.
The three-person flight crew, including a critical-care nurse, talked with the firefighters about their roles and how the aerial and ground teams can work best together.
Among other things, pilot Jerry Maloney noted that the helicopters want to land as close as possible to where the patient is waiting in an aid car or ambulance, and before touching down will circle a landing spot to visually check for any objects to avoid.
Maloney also reminded the firefighters to keep a safe distance as the helicopter nears the ground. He said dirt, rocks and other small debris becomes “missiles” when swept into the air by wash the rotors.
Airlift Northwest, which started its work in 1982, dispatches helicopters on emergency missions 24 hours a day from four bases in Seattle, Olympia, Arlington and Bellingham and a fifth base in Juneau, Alaska. They’re called for serious and life-threatening injuries that require getting patients quickly to a major trauma center such as Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
In addition to helicopters, a turboprop airplane and Learjeet are based in Juneau.
Eatonville Fire chief Bob Hudspeth said his department averages at least 10 helicopter missions per year. In one recent incident, a visitor to Mount Rainier National Park fell and suffered head injuries that were serious enough to warrant a helicopter landing in Ashford to meet an Eatonville aid car with the patient. Eatonville and Fire District 23 handle medical emergencies at the park.
Eatonville Fire arranged the recent training exercise, which included some classroom time, and was happy to share the time with South Pierce Fire, Hudspeth said.
“We’re constantly attempting to bring the highest level of training to our personnel and have no problem sharing our training venues and events with any of our neighboring departments,” he said.