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Miami-Dade Fire: To the rescue

By Jen Boyer

Published on: August 11, 2023
Estimated reading time 23 minutes, 59 seconds.

The Air Rescue team at Miami-Dade Fire Rescue shows us what it’s like to be the master of all trades.

Shortly before 11 p.m. on a spring night, a Cessna 152 disappeared in the Everglades. Owned by a local flight school, the aircraft had crashed and flipped onto its back near the border of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, approximately 22 miles (35 kilometers) from the closest road. The two people onboard were pinned in the aircraft.

Upon receiving the report of the missing aircraft, one of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s (MDFR) Air Rescue helicopters launched, using night vision goggles (NVGs) to search for the aircraft. Operating with two pilots and two paramedics, the team expected the worst when they came upon the Cessna.

MDFR Air Rescue is just one of the tools in the county’s vast firefighting toolbox, yet it is one that greatly expands its capabilities. Anthony Pecchi Photo

“The plane was upside down in the swamp and looked pretty mangled,” said MDFR Capt. Alejandro Vazquez. “The crew was afraid the occupants may have drowned, but we immediately lowered a medic to survey the wreckage and look for any signs of life.”

An MDFR paramedic was hoisted down to appraise the scene. He immediately noticed the thick seven-foot (two-meter) high sawgrass that kept the plane from completely submerging in the swamp. As he walked on the wing of the aircraft toward the fuselage, he spotted a leg extending out of the wreckage moving around in an attempt to get his attention. The two passengers were still fastened into their seats and both were alive, though the second one was unconscious.

The paramedic radioed the survivors’ status and requested assistance. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter arrived and lowered a second rescuer, and an MDFR airboat airboat pulled up shortly after with additional support. Standing in knee-deep water, the rescuers worked together to lift the plane enough to extract each victim.

Above the scene, the Air Rescue helicopter was reaching its fuel limit. It left the MDFR rescuer to refuel, returning a short while later to hoist the victims and paramedic and transport them to Kendall Regional Medical Center. It was all in a day’s work for the multi-mission Air Rescue unit.

Nothing is routine

MDFR Air Rescue supports a wide variety of missions in a 3,000-square-mile (7,770-square-kilometer) area in South Florida. While based in Miami-Dade County, the Air Rescue services extend throughout most of the southern tip of the state, including Miami, most of the Everglades, and the Florida Keys.

MDFR’s service area includes the open ocean, swamps, and rural and urban land, requiring a fast and capable multi- mission helicopter fleet. Anthony Pecchi Photo

The only helicopter emergency medical services unit in the county, MDFR Air Rescue’s primary mission is to respond to trauma-related incidents requiring rapid transport to the closest trauma facility. These most often include automobile accidents, boat accidents, downed aircraft, injured back country adventurers, and wild and venomous animal bite victims.

Given the considerable size of open park land in its coverage area, Air Rescue is also often called to perform search-and-rescue (SAR) missions on the county’s waterways, unpopulated areas, Everglades National Park, and Big Cypress National Preserve. It is not uncommon for Air Rescue to utilize its hoist to deploy a rescuer to assess the situation, provide medical treatment, or rescue the victim or victims from land or water.

Air Rescue also responds to wildland firefighting calls, utilizing a 250-US gallon (950-liter) Bambi Bucket to provide water drops, and supports local law enforcement agencies with specialized assistance, such as surveillance and fast-rope deployment of special response team personnel.

And often, it performs many of these missions with no additional support.

“The reality is, we can respond and find ourselves in almost any situation,” Vazquez explained. “A good percentage of the time, we are also the only unit responding to an incident. It’s just four people and an aircraft and we have to make it work. We have a tremendous amount of training in a number of disciplines, which allow us to develop solutions and solve these puzzles on the spot to help provide lifesaving service to people.”

Proving multi-mission capabilities

MDFR’s Air Rescue unit was formed in 1985 to provide rapid patient treatment and transport to the county’s only Level 1 trauma center, Jackson Memorial’s Ryder Trauma Center. In the beginning, the service was provided by one Bell 412, flown by a single pilot and supported by two onboard medics. The aircraft serviced the entire county, responding anywhere it was needed — urban and rural settings alike — and operating from Miami Executive Airport in the south end of the county.

MDFR updated its fleet with four Leonardo AW139 helicopters completed to Air Rescue’s specifications. Anthony Pecchi Photo

It didn’t take long for the program to prove its success. The unit soon expanded in several important ways. A second Bell 412 was purchased to ensure the service was available 24/7. With this purchase, MDFR Air Rescue also expanded into special operations with a larger, more diverse crew.

The new aircraft came equipped with a rescue hoist and cargo hook to allow for SAR operations and Bambi Bucket firefighting operations. The crew also increased to a dual pilot operation while the paramedic crew members were trained in advanced lifesaving skills, hoist operation, rescue specializations, and rescue swimming.

By 2000, demand grew and a second Air Rescue base opened at Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport in the north end of the county. Two more multi-mission equipped Bell 412s were added to the fleet. These two bases continue to operate today as designations Air Rescue North and Air Rescue South.

MDFR operates two bases across the county to expedite response — Air Rescue North and Air Rescue South. Felipe Galvez Photo

In 2021, MDFR updated its fleet with four brand-new Leonardo AW139 helicopters completed to Air Rescue’s specifications. The new aircraft also came with training and support packages for the pilots, aircraft technicians, and flight crews. The larger, more powerful helicopters have allowed the unit to perform more missions and expand its coverage area. While one aircraft must remain in the county at all times and one is typically rotated out for maintenance, the other two are available to extend further from home.

“Our main operational profile is the same with the AW139s — we continue to do Bambi Bucket drops, search-and-rescue, and trauma and facility transports, but we’re   able to do it better,” Vazquez said. “The updated technology helps us be more efficient and cut down on the crew’s workload.”

Fully-loaded aircraft

Faster and larger with a higher maximum gross weight and longer endurance, the new AW139s are equipped with the latest flight, communication, and mission technology. The NVG-compatible aircraft features a glass cockpit, traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS), terrain awareness, an active vibration control system, and flight management system (FMS). The FMS in particular is a real game-changer for crew workload, Vazquez said.

MDFR Air Rescue is a fully-equipped HEMS helicopter, allowing it to perform rescues and medical transports. Anthony Pecchi Photo

“The pilots can input a search pattern and expand it,” he explained. “The aircraft will fly the pattern on its own, providing a more exact search. We can also set the resolution, like a half a mile spacing or quarter mile spacing. Then, if we were to spot something outside of that search pattern, we can fly over to it and investigate. When we’re done, the aircraft will fly right back to the search pattern where we left off, so nothing is left uncovered. This system really prevents any doubling of efforts and maximizes our fuel time and coverage of any search area, especially over the Everglades and open water.”

Mission equipment includes a TrakkaBeam A800 searchlight, which provides a considerable improvement for missions, Vazquez said. Using LED light, the system tracks automatically as the aircraft moves for a more controlled, even spread of light. It also includes filters to best light specific scenes and avoids washout, such as the yellow filter for foliage. Additionally, the TrakkaBeam’s infrared filter allows it to be a spotlight for the onboard FLIR Star SAFIRE 380-HDc.

Air Rescue cabin crew are required to be certified as advanced open water divers and attend rescue swimmer training. Anthony Pecchi Photo

“With the FLIR, we are now able to search miles ahead for any heat source and focus in on it,” Vazquez explained. “In a recent search, I was able to see the exhaust pipes from an airboat from miles away and we were able to focus in on that target, which we would never have been able to do with night vision goggles alone as they operate on a different spectrum altogether than the infrared. With more tools, we see more. The FLIR can’t see your cell phone for instance, but the goggles can. With both FLIR and the goggles, our capabilities have expanded.”

For emergency medical services (EMS) operations, the aircraft is equipped with an Aerolite EMS package, which enables flight crews to provide complete advanced life support care for single or dual patients. The aircraft can also be rapidly reconfigured to utilize a mass casualty incident backboard kit unique to MDFR’s request to carry four to six patients in times of mass casualty or disaster relief efforts.

Vazquez emphasized the AW139 cabin area is more open than the Bell 412, which allows for better cabin management. The tail boom storage area is accessible from the inside, allowing for additional space and quick reconfigurations. Vazquez said this space makes EMS operations, hoist work, and diver and SWAT team insertions easier and more comfortable.

The AW139 provides increased cabin room and storage, allowing teams to be more efficient and responsive. Anthony Pecchi Photo

“We don’t have to return to the station as much for reconfiguration due to the space,” Vazquez shared. “If we’re transporting a patient to the trauma center and get a call for a search-and-rescue that requires the hoist, we can launch right from the hospital to the mission instead of going to base to pick up hoist equipment as we did with the 412. The 139’s space and carrying capacity allows us to carry our hoist equipment all the time. We can access our tail boom from the cabin and configure the hoist while en route so we’re ready when we get on scene.”

He also praised the aircraft for its increased power. While the aircraft uses two engines like the Bell 412, where the engines are located and the center of mass of the aircraft lead to much less loss of power in a single-engine operation, giving the crew more time to fly to a safe landing area, Vazquez said.

The aircraft’s SAR equipment includes a Collins Aerospace Goodrich hoist system, which can be utilized with a rescue seat, strop, rescue basket, or litter. The AW139s are also equipped with a fast-rope insertion system, allowing the unit to support SWAT teams and other missions requiring rapid deployment of multiple responders.

The aircraft’s SAR equipment includes a Collins Aerospace Goodrich hoist system, as well as a fast- rope insertion system. Anthony Pecchi Photo

Onboard communication equipment takes MDFR Air Rescue to the next level. The communications package on the new aircraft includes dual radio systems providing all-in-one ultrahigh frequency (UHF), 800 MHz, and very high frequency (VHF) communications. This allows the crew to monitor six radios independently, providing the opportunity to talk with air traffic, MDFR, military, municipality, hospital, law enforcement, and government agencies such as the National Park Service rangers.

“We recently had a boat accident with a lot of injured people,” Vazquez explained. “We talked with Miami-Dade County aircraft command on the UHF channel, but were also able to talk with other assets coming in, such as the police, Coast Guard, and recreational boaters in the area. I can patch them in and have them all speak together under one command from the aircraft. This is so valuable over the ocean because a lot of our base repeaters on the ground do not face out over the water. The aircraft is high up with a greater range of effectiveness, improving group communications.”

Communication is also increased through the aircraft’s Axnes wireless ICS system. This updated system allows onboard crew to communicate on a closed channel with each other, even when a crew member exits the aircraft to provide aid or participate in a rescue. The system is linked with GPS and has an audio range of seven miles (11 kilometers), allowing the aircraft crew to communicate with crewmembers outside the aircraft and find crewmembers immediately if the aircraft needs to leave the scene for any reason.

MDFR Air Rescue supports missions throughout a 3,000-square-mile (7,770-square- kilometer) area in South Florida. Anthony Pecchi Photo

While not a large portion of Air Rescue’s missions, firefighting is an important aspect. The most common fire calls take place in the Everglades, along highways, and where trash is piled.

“You’re allowed to burn trash in Florida, and we do get quite a few calls for fires that got away from people, but also fires that started on their own in trash piles, typically from a piece of glass magnifying the sun to start a fire and combustible metal that got too hot,” Vazquez said. “In the more rural areas, typically cigarettes thrown out car windows or from airboats cause fires, as does lightning. We respond with the Bambi Bucket, and in those missions, a medic acts as ground crew helping direct and manage the operation from the ground.”

Master of all trades

Currently, Air Rescue employs 16 pilots to support the three 24-hour shift cycles for both bases. Close to 40 medics are assigned to Air Rescue, but rotate between the helicopter, rescue trucks and fire engines. All MDFR Air Rescue teams are sworn members of the fire department. Even pilots attend the fire academy and take emergency medical technician (EMT) training.

Faster and larger with a higher maximum gross weight and longer endurance, the new AW139s are equipped with the latest flight, communication, and mission technology. Anthony Pecchi Photo

Like many operators, MDFR Air Rescue is hiring. Minimum requirements to apply with MDFR Air Rescue as a second-in-command (SIC) pilot are 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command (PIC) time in helicopters, with 100 hours helicopter turbine PIC, 100 hours helicopter PIC cross country, 250 hours helicopter PIC night, and 10 hours of helicopter flight time in the preceding 12 months.

New pilots, in addition to fire academy training, receive training toward the AW139 type rating. While Air Rescue does not conduct IFR operations, all pilots are instrument rated and maintain currency. SIC pilots are trained on the job in long-line fire suppression, hoist operations, NVG, and water rescue. PIC positions are most often filled from the SIC ranks, Vazquez said.

The minimum Air Rescue cabin crew is two MDFR paramedics — one of which is an officer. All medics receive considerable training in advanced life support, radio communications, FLIR and TrakkaBeam operations, navigation, airspace and helicopter operations, hoist and rescuer operations, and Bambi Bucket fire suppression. Each are certified as advanced open water divers. Typically, both are onboard for all operations, and exceptions include special operations, such as SWAT team insertions and fire suppression.

“Our crews in the back of the aircraft begin their training with a 10-week program learning about all the systems on the aircraft, as well as helicopter operations, including airspace, general aviation, and tower communications, in addition to all the other things air rescue involves,” Vazquez said. “Those that pass continue to a 12-shift apprenticeship with a flight medic instructor running drills and responding to real calls. Then there is the checkride.”

The checkride is a day and night assessment of all the medic’s skills and includes hiding people around the county who need to be “rescued.” The medic is required to ask the questions, gather the right information, direct the pilots and crew, and oversee the mission, which includes hoist, Bambi Bucket, water rescue, and trauma EMS calls. After passing this test, the medic takes a two-week rescue swimmer internal program that is in addition to their open water diver certification.

“Our program has to be strict because as I’ve said, we could be the only unit out there and everyone onboard has to be specialized in all the skills,” Vazquez said. “Our teams really do become master of all trades.”

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