After helicopter policy change, Aiken Co. firefighters focus on training

News 12 at 11 o'clock / Thursday, Sep. 26, 2013

COUCHTON, S.C. (WRDW) -- The bruises and blood were fake, but the drill Couchton Fire Rescue put on with Aiken Rescue and AirMed last Saturday was very real.

"You come up on scenes where it's your friends or family, and that really adds a bit to it," says Chris Cady, a volunteer firefighter with Couchton and an employee of Aiken Electric Cooperative, where the drill was held.

"I have one minor patient with back injury," radioed Couchton Chief Donnie Cook. "I have three patients in one vehicle. One possible Signal 9."

This time around, firefighters and first-responders were presented with a Signal 9, or fatality. In another car, a female driver, donning black-and-blue makeup all over her face, had suffered minor injuries. Back in the other vehicle, two more male patients were injured, one of them severely. However, all of the victims were entrapped.

"The new modern vehicles are built very tough and resistant," says Cady. "And they're also tough to get cut open and get the people out of."

Once the firefighters from Couchton Fire Rescue and Windsor Volunteer Fire Department use an arsenal of amped up tool to pry open door and literally cut and peel back the top of the other vehicle, medics from Aiken Rescue go to work.

"Those that come through our district may or may not be our neighbors," says Cady. "They may be somebody just passing through, but we still want the best we can give them."

Cady says sometimes, when an injury is severe enough, an ambulance ride is too slow.

"At this time, put the helicopter on standby, please," radioed Chief Cook in the distance.

This drill was an important one for that reason. In a a community about 45 minutes from Georgia Regents Medical Center, Cady says sometimes helicopter life-flights are necessary.

"Recent studies show that survivability of a catastrophic incident are incident are increased by 33% when flown by a medical crew," says Program Director Russell Wise with AirMed, who adds that his company strives to be utilized, even if the helicopter is forced to turn around if firefighters discover an injury wasn't as severe as originally thought.

To make a flight happen though, firefighters have a big responsibility in setting up a Landing Zone (LZ) and keeping it secure. The criteria are things textbooks can't always teach. Pilots need a 100 ft. by 100 ft. area. They need flat ground with no obstructions. For a safe landing, pilots also need emergency vehicles at each corner of the LZ. Only then, can the patient be flown to help.

As for Couchton's landing zone, Wise says the one they set up was close to perfect.

"We had a young man that was at a party and fell into the bond fire at the party, and he was ridden by ground ambulance from the area here around Aiken Electric Coop to the Burn Center in Augusta at Doctors Hospital. That was a 45 minute ride for him. It's a 10 minute air flight," says Cady.

Aiken County firefighters now hope calling helicopters will be easier. In July, the death of a toddler in Wagener prompted the change. Before the change, Aiken County EMS supervisors had to affirm or deny the chopper. It was a process some argued took precious time. Chief Mark Redd of the Wagener Volunteer Fire Department and others addressed the Aiken County Council in mid-July pleading for a change. A few days later, Redd and the others got just that.

"First Responders on the scene of an accident or any other emergency situation requiring the use of an air ambulance shall be authorized to LAUNCH an air ambulance," the policy reads. "Each responding agency (Law Enforcement, Fire and EMS) will be expected to develop and adopt their own set of internal guidelines regulating authorization procedures."

"Oh, that was a huge change," says Eureka Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Chad Auvenshine. "In our area, we'll arrive on the scene sometimes 15 to maybe even 20 minutes before an EMS unit arrives."

That's why Eureka, near the Edgefield County line, along with Center Fire Department and Aiken County's Sage Mill Station, are also brushing up on calling helicopters and setting up landing zones.

AirMed also joined them for a class on setting on landing zones. Firefighters practiced setting up their own behind the station, where the AirMed chopper landed successful as the sun set.

"You know, our stance is if the helicopter's coming and EMS gets there, they take over the patient, they choose not to air transport with the helicopter hovering above, you know, that's their call," says Auvenshine.

But in Eureka and back in Couchton, the volunteer firefighters just want respect from Aiken County Dispatch and Aiken County EMS.

"Most of the first-responders that we have on our department are 15-20 year first-responders, which is a lot longer tenure here on the volunteer fire departments than there is at the Aiken County EMS," says Cady.

Despite policy changes, Cady says one thing will never change. He says the first-responders will keep training, fighting fires, and responding first for free. Keep in mind, Cady says, the volunteer departments don't technically have to go beyond simply putting out fires, so by responding to accidents and medical calls for free, Cady says it gives Aiken County a big leg up.

However, there are still some areas to iron out. The program director from AirMed discovered in the training courses in Couchton and Eureka that there is a lack of a good radio channel for pilots and air nurses to communicate directly with Aiken County firefighters. He hopes to find a fix to that problem soon.


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