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The Chicago Fire Department Air Sea Rescue helicopters spend as much or more time over water as they do over fires, providing the Windy City with a vital search and rescue service.
Nestled in Calumet Park on the southeast side of Chicago is the Chicago Fire Departments (CFDs) helibase. Co-located at the same facility where the Chicago Police Department (CPD) operates a Bell 206B-3 and 206L-4, CFD Air Sea Rescue (CFDASR or ASR) operates a pair of pristine Bell 412EPs from here.
Fully equipped with modern surveillance and downlink technologies, these 412s play a valuable role in supporting the departments response to structure fires and other incidents. Most of the time, however, theyre not over fire but over water, rescuing boaters and various other people who find themselves in trouble around the southern Lake Michigan shoreline.
Having the Right Equipment
CFDASR began as the air rescue helicopter unit in 1965 with two Bell 47Gs. In 1979, it merged with the departments sea rescue unit to form the Air Sea Rescue unit. Today, CFDASR provides search and rescue (SAR) services not only for the 37 miles of the citys lakefront, but for its extensive river and harbor system, as well.
Just prior to only flying the 412EPs, the unit operated a Bell UH-1 and a 206L-4, as well. With the scheduled arrival of the second 412 in 2007, however, the Huey was retired, and the 206L-4 was sent to the CPD, which still operates that aircraft today. The upgrade to the 412EP was spawned by ASRs desire for newer equipment, more power and so each of its ships could take two rescue divers on SAR missions.
While more expensive to operate than a 206L-4, the 412EP is great for our needs, has good power, we can handle more weight and can carry more manpower inside, explained veteran helicopter pilot and diver Mike Strocchia, who has been with CFD for 31 years and with the ASR unit for 25.
Arriving six years apart the first 412 was delivered in 2001; the second in 2007 the helicopters do have some differences in how they are outfitted.
Both models have a FLIR Systems Ultra 8500 multi-sensor system, a 30-million candlepower Spectrolab SX-16 Nightsun searchlight, a Breeze Eastern HS-20200 rescue hoist, a wire strike kit and a real-time Troll Systems datalink antenna. The 2001 model 412, N682FD, also has an SAIC Exploranium system, which is essentially a large-scale Geiger counter internally mounted on a support rack inside the luggage compartment. The 2007 bird, N681FD, isnt slated to receive the Exploranium detection gear until 2012. Conversely, N681FD has a skid-mounted, water-activated emergency float kit and arrived from Bell with a health and usage monitoring system. The newer ship is also night-vision-goggle-compatible, containing NVG lighting coupled with a black instrument panel. ASR crews werent using NVGs when N682FD was delivered in 2001, but the older 412 is scheduled to be modified for NVG compatibility, most likely in 2012.
Working a Diverse Mission
As wildfires arent much of a problem around the Chicago area, ASRs 412s are not equipped with any firefighting gear or Bambi Buckets they dont even have cargo hooks. Rather, the unit mostly employs the aircraft for SAR. And, because of its frequent missions around Lake Michigan, ASR is strategically located right on the shoreline, making for quicker response times.
Ninety-five percent of our SAR work is water-related, said Strocchia, it could be small boats, a drowning . . . and we always carry rafts [three-, 10- and 46-person designs] on board to throw to victims in need. Recently, there was a boat that capsized in very rough and windy waters. We rescued one [person]; although sadly three others drowned . . . that is indicative of the dangers the lake can pose. When the lake is low, some boaters strike the bottom and take on water. We get a fair amount of missing people calls around the shoreline also. A common rescue-mission process involves our fire department fast boat going out to check out certain situations, and we stand ready to respond if called upon.
Due to the nature of its missions, ASR has a full range of pilots, divers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics on staff, many of whom are responsible for performing multiple roles. Before a mission, or when a SAR mission is scrambled, crews are assembled based on the qualifications anticipated for the type of rescue. The unit members stand 24-hour shifts and remain on site during their stint.
All pilots are hired from within, so they must be a firefighter first and foremost. Then, if they are interested in becoming a 412 pilot, some of the first questions in the interview are, How well can you swim and dive, and do you have any rescue/lifeguard swimming experience?
Strocchia said the majority of the units rescues occur within five miles from shore, as is illustrated by one particularly dramatic (and award-winning) rescue he recalled. Awhile ago [see p.22, Vertical, June-July 2008], during spring, there was a little boy that was in a stroller alongside the lake on a walkway. A strong gust of wind blew the stroller and child in, and they descended to the bottom of the lake. The grandfather jumped in trying to save him, without success. We happened to have a 412EP with divers up at the time. The water was very cold and we were able to get the grandfather out, he told us what happened, and soon thereafter we retrieved the child. The child had been underwater for about a total of 10 to 15 minutes [but] fully recovered.
ASR does occasionally perform longer-range rescues, too. One time, we found a lost kayaker 28 miles offshore in the lake at night, said Strocchia. We deployed a surface swimmer and then used the hoist to extract him. At night and over the water, we are flying in near-IMC [instrument meteorological conditions].
For a typical SAR mission, the 412EPs go out with two pilots and two scuba divers. The divers will serve as crewmembers and may operate devices such as the Nightsun and FLIR Ultra 8500 sensor if needed (although the FLIR is generally operated by the co-pilot). Crews will fly a grid pattern during searches, and often divide up the search area in conjunction with other agencies that may have sent a boat or helicopter to aid in the mission such as the United States Coast Guard (USCG), which may send a Eurocopter H-65 Dolphin from Air Station Traverse City, Mich.
When deploying divers, the 412 will get into a hover at about a three-foot skid height over the water, although when dropping into unknown or shallow waters, ASR pilots will get the skids wet if they have to, making it as safe as possible for the divers. On the other hand, a diver may have to jump from as high as 25 to 30 feet if the helicopter is not able to get low enough, such as when a shoreline obstruction is present.
Rather than bringing victims on board the aircraft, crews try to move them onto other vessels operated by the CFD, CPD, USCG or Chicago Lifeguard Service, since ASR aircraft may not always have a paramedic on board to render aid. Also, with the divers and their equipment taking up much of the cabin space on the 412s, the helicopters do not carry medical equipment (and they are not rated for medical transport), so there are limits on what can be medically accomplished for victims in any case. Only as a last resort will ASR crews use the hoist to bring a victim on board (interestingly, sometimes one of the two pilots will unstrap and take over operation of the hoist in these instances).
The diver-qualified crewmembers, including diver/pilots, rotate between reporting to the helibase and to the units rescue dive van (a quick-response ground-based vehicle with a supervisor and a trio of divers who work with the 412s if a rescue is required). This not only creates a bit of a personnel juggling act, it creates a challenge for pilot and crewmember training flows. In the larger scheme of things, though, having the teams split this way strengthens the overall unit, since crewmembers gain a more comprehensive understanding of what each component does and what its capabilities are, thus ensuring a better working dynamic during a mission.
While SAR missions make up the majority of their workload, the helicopters are used for other missions, as well. Utilizing the Exploranium gear, the unit works hand-in-hand with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energys National Laboratories and Technology Centers personnel, checking for high radiation levels around major events or presidential visits. On rare occasions, usually when extra space or lifting ability is required beyond what the CPDs Bell 206s can provide, CFDASR crews will work with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation on surveillance missions.
Naturally, the unit responds to fires, as well, generally in a surveillance and communications role. Said Strocchia, Recently we went to a very large high-rise fire. Fortunately, they had a great evacuation procedure in place, so no one lost their life. We also have had several large-scale train derailments. With the 412EP and the power it brings to the table, we can readily do OGE [out-of-ground-effect] hovering, making it well suited for disaster responses such as these.
Preparing for Eventualities
With the demanding nature of its missions, ASR naturally emphasizes complete training of its crews, especially pilot training. According to Strocchia: We started a pilot proficiency program and we need to have 10 hours [of training] every three months per pilot, plus some night flying and classroom time. That may soon be increased to 50 hours per year, plus whatever the actual mission flight time is. We go to FlightSafety International Inc. once a year for additional training. Not all pilots have instrument ratings, and for training we do an assortment of maneuvers that we may perform during mission flights.
Naturally, maintenance is also a key concern for the unit. We schedule our maintenance quarterly and keep a good handle on it, said pilot and flight instructor Keith Wilson, who is deputy district chief and commanding officer for ASR and has been with CFD for 26 years and with ASR for 21. There are always those unscheduled maintenance issues that crop up, and with only two aircraft on hand we need to watch the maintenance-aspects closely.
Wilsons other concerns center around furthering the units capabilities. In the near future, I would like us to start being able to lower rescuers down to get a victim using the hoist, and also working with SWAT teams, being able to have them rappel down to rooftops.
What else is on the units wish list? Like most public-sector organizations, the unit must be mindful of budgets that limit its ability to acquire new equipment, but it would still really like a third 412EP, which could be used for training or serve as a backup should one of the other two helicopters be down for maintenance. The unit would like a true, dedicated SAR ship with specialized SAR equipment, such as a Garmin GNS 530 with GPS and weather displays. It would also like to equip all of its aircraft with emergency float kits. Finally, given its challenging operating environment, it would like to certify all of its pilots with instrument ratings, in addition to training the last four pilots who are not yet NVG-qualified.
As the Air Sea Rescue unit works toward these goals, however, it will continue to do what it does best: support the public safety activities of the Chicago Fire Department and other local, state and federal organizations, and deliver lifesaving support to the people of the Windy City.
Ted Carlson is a professional aviation photojournalist and runs Southern-California-based Fotodynamics.com. He specializes in aerial photography of military and civil aircraft, and his images have adorned over 300 covers of various publications. As a writer, Ted has had hundreds of his articles published worldwide. He can be reached at: email@example.com.