By Sgt. 1st Class David BruceAugust 1, 2019
KINGSBURY, Indiana - People in distress stranded atop flooded houses as responders lower from a helicopter. The rotor wash creates a jarring frenzy of sound, waves rippling out in the floodwaters as people are extracted from their water-encircled refuge and whisked away to safety. It's a familiar image that frequently finds itself in newscasts from disaster areas.
Members of the Indiana Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team, comprised of helicopter crews and pilots from the Indiana Army National Guard and search and rescue technicians from the South Bend Fire Department, performed helicopter hoist operations at Kingsbury Reserve Training Area near LaPorte, Indiana, July 22-23.
The rescue training involved recovering personnel from a UH-60 Black Hawk hovering approximately 100 feet from the ground. This exercise prepared the team for additional training and certification scheduled for August in South Carolina.
The new HART program, which will be the first in the Midwest, is a partnership between the Indiana National Guard and the South Bend Fire Department. After several years of discussion and anticipation, the program is scheduled to attend training and FEMA certification in South Carolina in August.
Hoist operations arguably are the most challenging task for the crew chief, entails lowering a person from a helicopter to a point on the ground, overcoming turbulence, terrain, and a host of other variables.
"The pilots can't see what we're doing, so we have to articulate it. We describe (it) as (if) painting a picture for them, so they understand what's going on. When you're the operator of the hoist, you are (the) eyes and ears of what's going on and you have to relay that to the pilots," said Sgt. Todd D. Overbeck. "Everybody has to function as a team."
The command pilot and project lead for HART with the Indiana Army National Guard, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Joshua Wiedeman, was exposed to the concept of helicopter search and rescue while flying as a medevac pilot during his deployment to Kosovo in 2016.
"It was a neat concept and it planted the seed when I came back to Indiana after the deployment," he said. The idea was attempted before his involvement but the initiative had stalled. With permission to reinvigorate the program, Weideman contacted Chris Baker, a battalion chief with the South Bend, Indiana Fire Department.
Hurricane Florence provided additional motivation for the establishment. The experience emphasized the importance of having a trained team that specializes in helicopter search and rescue.
"We wanted to start with a small group to see how things would work and it made sense financially and practically. Everybody that's on the civilian-rescuer side are certified as swift-water rescue technicians. They are also rope rescue technicians and the majority of us are advanced EMTs or paramedics," said Baker.
The Indiana National Guard contributed a small group of three pilots, three hoist operators and two medics to the team. The South Bend Fire Department's portion of the team consists of six firefighters with the eight soldiers.
"I think this is a mission worth being passionate about," Weideman said. "I believe that performing these types of missions and being part of these mission sets is part of the reason people join the Army National Guard. When I look at the individuals, we have on this team and their passion for this mission set, I think it's undeniable. The people we took to Hurricane Florence with us came back and said 'this is what I enlisted for, this is what I've been looking for."
Overbeck, a Hurricane Florence volunteer and HART hoist operator, recently decided to reenlist in no small part due to the HART mission. "I am just now in the process of signing a reenlistment contract and the HART was 95 percent of my decision to stay versus getting out," said Overbeck.
For Overbeck, the mission makes it worth the challenges that being a guardsman presents; balancing Guard life versus civilian life. He said it was one of those things that makes all this worthwhile.
"I think this is something that's awesome for our unit and the South Bend guys. said Overbeck.
"We got invited to train with South Carolina, North Carolina and Texas," said Baker. "Those organizations are pioneers of HART, Texas being involved for the past 18 years and North and South Carolina (coming) onboard slightly after that. They have a lot of years of experience doing this stuff."
The South Carolina training goal is to certify or "type" according to FEMA standards. There are four types; Type 1 is most advanced and has the most resources. Type 4 is usually small teams of about six people with the capacity to do some boat rescues, mainly calm water. Type 3 certification adds moving water to the Type 4 capability. Type 2 and Type 1 consists of 16 member teams with abilities to operate day or night in flood or swift water. The FEMA typing system ensures the proper assets are assigned appropriate missions according to their capabilities.
"We are excited for the State of Indiana to get this team stood up," said Baker. "They experience significant floods in the southern part of the state where resources are not as readily available. This exercise will be able to put us down in an area to cover more ground and be a force multiplier."