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features Facing the Storm: How Irish Coast Guard rescue crews responded to Emma

A fierce winter storm last year taxed Irish Coast Guard helicopter search-and-rescue crews to the max, leading to an extraordinary day of rescues.
Avatar for Dan Megna By Dan Megna | October 15, 2019

Estimated reading time 13 minutes, 36 seconds.

Editor’s Note: This story was reported by Vertical Magazine and sponsored by Collins Aerospace.

The 2017-18 European winter storm season will go down as one of the most momentous on record. A number of intense winter storms, producing bitterly cold temperatures and damaging winds, wreaked havoc all across Europe. In some instances, these storms merged with other weather systems, developing into “super storms.”

Storm Emma was one such super storm. It first developed during the last days of February over Western Europe. In the days that followed, the moisture-laden storm and its dangerous winds tracked northwest toward the United Kingdom and Ireland. There, it merged with another system: an unstable polar air mass pushing in from Siberia, dubbed by local media as the “Beast from the East.”

By mid-day on March 2, Dublin, Ireland and the surrounding countryside was beginning to experience Emma’s wrath. Temperatures fell rapidly as winds increased. By late afternoon, heavy blowing and drifting snow blanketed roadways, making vehicle travel nearly impossible.

By evening, airports suspended operations, public transportation ceased, and mobile EMS resources were rendered largely ineffective. Greater Dublin was brought to a literal standstill while the outlying rural villages, isolated farms, and cottages prepared to be cut off, likely for days.

Just ahead of the storm, around 1 p.m., Sid Lawrence, a Sikorsky S-92 captain for CHC Helicopters, arrived for his shift at the Irish Coast Guard (IRCG) facility at Dublin Airport. He recalled, “We had plenty of warning for Storm Emma; we knew it was coming. We had prepared for it and the island battened down the hatches.”

CHC provides five search-and-rescue (SAR) S-92s, four primary and one spare, to IRCG, along with flight crews, rescue crews, and flight engineers who operate from four coastal bases. While their primary responsibilities are emergencies at sea, they are also tasked with public safety and emergency missions all across Ireland. Each four-person flight crew comprises two pilots, and a winch operator and a winch man who are also trained paramedics. Two engineers on each shift are responsible for servicing the aircraft and keeping them airworthy.

“We came in the first day, the winds were gusting over 40 knots from the east,” said Lawrence. “Visibility was about two kilometers [1.2 miles] in falling snow and cloud bases over the airfield were around 800 feet. And that was pretty consistent throughout the whole period. Obviously, the clouds went up and down and the wind shifted around, but that was pretty much indicative of Storm Emma.”

Finding the limits

Within seconds of walking in the door, the SAR bell went off. Lawrence and his “Rescue 116” crew received their first mission: a male with chest pains and possible head injury in an inaccessible area.

IRCG Sid Lawrence
Irish Coast Guard search-and-rescue captain Sid Lawrence recalled of Storm Emma, “In all my years in Ireland, I’ve never seen snow like it.”

The scene was 50 miles south of Dublin and reportedly only a short distance inland from the coast. Lawrence said, “We launched and flew down IFR [instrument flight rules] and then let down offshore and tried to make land break under the clouds. We couldn’t… I mean, the weather was appalling.”

Rescue 116 operated offshore for about half an hour, assessing weather and logistics with rescuers on scene. It was soon determined the casualty was much farther inland than first reported, and visibility between the coast and the scene had deteriorated to near zero. Rescuers had little choice but to look for alternatives. Rescue 116 was cleared to return to their base.

“The difficult jobs are always the ones you can’t actually do,” said Lawrence. “So that ranked bad because there was somebody who needed help and we couldn’t help. Now thankfully, a land ambulance got access and, between them and the fire brigade, they got him to safety and to a hospital.”

As Storm Emma intensified outside, Lawrence and his crew spent the rest of the shift uneventfully, warm and dry in the crew quarters. The following day, after the 1 p.m. crew change, the relief crew was also stuck indoors, away from the fierce conditions swirling outside. However, this enforced idleness wouldn’t last much longer.

It was 5 a.m. when the first SAR bell went off. An 81-year-old female had been bleeding all night with an uncontrollable nose bleed. She had reportedly lost a tremendous amount of blood and was in critical condition, and ground EMS assets had not been able to access her.

At the IRCG hangar, the overnight storm had blown eight-foot snow drifts up against the hangar doors. It took Dublin Airport ground support personnel an hour to remove the snow and clear a path before the S-92 could be rolled out.

The scene was a rural village in the foothills west of Dublin. While the IRCG crews do have moving map technology, it is intended for locating vessels offshore. For these overland missions, the computers can do little more than aid the crew in getting into the general area. Identifying the scene is strictly visual.

The helicopter crew maintained radio contact with EMS dispatchers talking with persons at the scene, asking for landmarks to guide them in. Once on target, the weather, deep snow, and overall environment dictated tactics for accessing the patient. Landing was simply not an option. Hoisting — using the aircraft’s Collins Aerospace Goodrich 44311 rescue hoist — was the only alternative.

The crew methodically ran through their checklist before paramedic Derek Everitt was deployed down to the scene. He recalled, “The biggest challenge we had was understanding how our depth perception goes after 25 or 30 feet below the aircraft. Everything below was just white. And as I approached what I thought was the ground, it was actually a nine-foot-deep snow drift.”

Once inside the residence, “now, basically it’s an ambulance scene call,” said Everitt. “You’re in someone’s living room.” As Everitt began working to stabilize the patient, a ground medic/rescue team arrived after a three-hour trek on foot through the snow. After stabilizing the patient, the two paramedics prepared the patient for the hoist extraction.

The area surrounding the home had several antennas and crisscrossing utility wires. Everitt identified a small 10-foot-square patch near the house adjacent to several large trees that was suitable for the extraction. The medic from the ground team was the first to be hoisted aboard the helicopter hovering 80 feet above. Everitt and the patient followed in a “double-up” configuration.

With weather conditions changing rapidly, Rescue 116 quickly ducked out of the scene. Everitt said, “We carefully assess exit routes and make a plan. If things go [wrong], the fall back recovery plan is to immediately climb to the MSA [minimum safe altitude] and return to Dublin.”

No other options

In this instance and all throughout Storm Emma, because deep snow blanketed all traditional landing zones near the hospitals, crew had no option but to fly back to Dublin Airport and transfer patients to an ambulance. (Some ambulances were escorted by snow plow to ensure safe passage.)

Michelle O'Neill
During Storm Emma, Michelle O’Neill’s three-month old son Kealan suddenly stopped breathing. “It was horrific,” she recalled. “We were on the phone to the ambulance; obviously they couldn’t get near us because the snow was so deep.”

It was near 7 a.m. when the helicopter landed at the airport. Almost immediately the crew was tasked again: a six-year-old boy needed medical attention in a remote village in the foothills. The weather check reported winds of 21 knots, outside air temperature of 1 C, visibility 2 kilometers, clouds broken at 800 feet, and snow showers. The crew decided to make an attempt.

Four minutes from the destination, they were re-tasked on a higher-priority call — a three-month-old child was in urgent need of medical attention after two apneic episodes (a transient cessation of respiration) overnight. His parents had been on the phone with the ground ambulance service for nearly six hours being told, “Look, we just can’t get to you.”

Again, finding the village was relatively easy. Locating the house, however, proved a challenge. Everitt said, “There were loads of people everywhere. There was no movement of cars. Just people walking, people waving. Finally we said, what’s really close to you? They said there’s a church steeple really close up the road a little bit. We could see two churches. So we pulled up alongside the first one… no, nothing there. We then pulled up alongside the second one and there they were; this man was frantically waving!”

This was a small village with clusters of small bungalows, church steeples, utility wires, and communication antennas — certainly not an ideal setting for hoist evolutions with an S-92. But the crew assessed the situation and protocols before deploying Everitt from a 120-foot hover into a neighboring yard. Because the weather was rapidly changing with snow showers moving through the area, the helicopter remained on scene, parking itself in a 300-foot hover adjacent to the church.

“I was met with two young parents of two young twin boys, a local girl who was a nurse, and the mom’s sister,” said Everitt. “It was a fairly hectic scene. A lot of concern, a lot of panic, and a lot of worry from the mom and her sister. And dad was just trying to be the dad, which is, ‘What can I do to help…?’ The baby was flat, flaccid, lack of [skin] tone, very quiet. And for us, a quiet baby is a sick baby. But all and all they handled it pretty well considering the child had stopped breathing overnight.”

Everitt determined the baby needed to get to a hospital. He explained to the parents that because landing the helicopter was not safe or practical, the baby, along with the mother, would need to ride the hoist to get aboard the helicopter. Everitt would secure the baby in a special baby pod securely attached to him for the ascent.

A retired firefighter arrived on scene offering assistance. Fortunately he was familiar with handling a high-line to stabilize a hoist load to prevent spins. Everitt recalled, “I moved everybody next door into the garden where I landed in initially. I put the fireman in position with the high-line. I explained [the process]: mom is going up on her own in a rescue strop and me and the baby will follow. The poor woman was absolutely petrified!”

Continuous operations

Arriving at the airport, the pair was turned over to a waiting ambulance. It was now approaching the end of this crew’s shift and their relief crew was standing by across the runway at their hangar. Just then, another call came in — they were being requested again for the six-year-old boy from earlier in the day.

Derek Everitt
Irish Coast Guard winchman Derek Everitt is normally rescuing people from ships offshore. During Storm Emma, he found himself in patients’ living rooms.

“We were told, go back to your base, hot refuel, and hot change,” said Everitt. “Don’t shut the machine down. So we basically briefed our relief crew and restocked the aircraft as it was running. They were going to pick up where we left off.”

For their departure, the airport was calling wind 30 knots, visibility 2 kilometers, cloud base at 900 feet and snow showers. Arriving on scene, the crew found it to be a small cottage on a farm. The windward side of the cottage was completely covered in a snow drift. An adjacent field was identified as the most suitable location for the hoist evolutions.

Lawrence said, “We do our winching from as low as possible but as high as we have to. On that particular occasion, because it was very remote, we could actually get down to about 80 feet. But the S-92 has a vicious downwash and we have to be aware of the risk of whiting ourselves out.”

When the young boy was stabilized, he and his mother were prepared for hoisting. Mom was lifted first, followed by the paramedic and the boy secured in a stretcher. Again, an ambulance met the aircraft at the airport for the handoff.

Then Lawrence and the Rescue 116 crew received yet another mission: a 73-year-old man in need of dialysis. The scene was remote and members of a mountain rescue team had reportedly trekked two miles through chest-deep snow to access the patient. One more hoist evolution and this patient, too, was extracted from Storm Emma’s frigid grip and delivered safely to medical care.

The tools for the job

Storm Emma was reportedly Ireland’s worst snowstorm in 30 years. Eastern Ireland and the greater Dublin area definitely took the brunt of it. “In all my years in Ireland, I’ve never seen snow like it,” said Lawrence. “There were roads completely lost for days and days and days and days because snow plows just couldn’t get to them.”

CHC Helicopters operates five search-and-rescue S-92 helicopters for the Irish Coast Guard. The aircraft is an “amazing machine” and its Goodrich dual hoist system is the “gold standard,” said Lawrence and Everitt. CHC Photo

Looking back on the mission tempo during the final hours of Storm Emma, Everitt said, “So we went from 5 a.m. all the way through to mid-day. And from mid-day, the next crew came in and took it until about 4:30 p.m. So the aircraft was on the go for almost 11.5 or 12 hours, only stopping to hot refuel and then go again.”

The other IRCG bases and aircraft also supported many storm-related missions. IRCG aircraft flew a number of inter-hospital patient transfers from outlying areas into Dublin hospitals, and ground assets ferried critical medical staff between facilities all across the island.

As is the case for any first responder, complete confidence in one’s equipment is absolutely paramount. And the Rescue 116 crew is quick to heap praise upon the machinery and hardware that take them out, bring them back, and make them effective and efficient on scene.

“The S-92 is an amazing machine,” said Lawrence. “In terms of icing, it’s the king. The S-92 can go down to minus 40 C and quite frankly laughs in the face of it.”

Everitt likewise praised the aircraft’s Goodrich rescue hoist, which boasts features including single-point cable payout due to a proprietary translating drum cable management system, variable speed performance, symmetrical braking, and continuous operational duty cycles.

“I’ve been flying here for 20 years, and in one form or another, I’ve been using Goodrich hoists,” said Everitt. “And the dual hoist system for me is simply the gold standard for all-weather search-and-rescue operations, on land or offshore. I’m sure if you talked to anyone in UK SAR, they’d tell you the same thing.”

He added, “From an operational point of view, we batter the hoists. They’re operating in salt water environments all the time. Ireland is an island and every one of our bases is within a salt water environment. We work in cliffs, mountains, all kinds of ship decks… There are very few things that are SAR-proof and these hoists are.”

For the men and women of the Hoist & Winch business segment of Collins Aerospace, rescues like the ones performed during Storm Emma are a powerful source of pride and motivation.

“It brings immense personal and professional satisfaction to work on a piece of life-saving equipment that allows these rescue crews to perform their missions, and we shared the details of this particular mission across our entire Hoist & Winch headquarters in Brea, California,” said Nick Demogines, Collins’ associate director, business development for Hoist & Winch. “Everyone here takes great pride in providing hoists that help get people out of harm’s way and bring them home safely.”

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