Statewide SAR training a success
Last weekend search and rescue teams from West Virginia and surrounding states converged on the Buckskin Scout Reservation in Pocahontas County for their annual search and rescue training. Teams came from as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania to participate. National organizations like the American Red Cross and the Civil Air Patrol were here, as well.
Bill Kershner, search and rescue coordinator for the state of West Virginia, explained the purpose of this year's exercise.
"The scenario is a plane crash with a survivor," said Kershner. "The Civil Air Patrol has to find the emergency locating beacon first, that's the starting point. Then land teams will go in and find the crash site and try to search for the survivor."
The rescuers on the ground included teams on foot, SAR dog teams and all-terrain vehicles, all supported by SAR planes in the air. Kershner said the scenario is not far fetched.
"It's a very likely scenario," he said. "We've done this many times over the last few years. These old mountains claim a lot of light planes."
Kershner said it's important for this kind of inter-agency training to ensure everyone is better prepared in an emergency situation.
"That's why we exercise now. It's better than trying to exchange business cards at two in the morning when you don't know each other," joked Kershner. "So if we do nothing else on these exercises, all the different groups get used to working with agencies they're not used to working with. When you have to do it for an actual emergency, it goes a little more seamlessly than people not knowing who's in charge, or how the system works, and that sort of thing."
Mark Eggeman is the search and rescue coordinator for the Commonwealth of Virginia. He stressed the importance of large-scale training scenarios that involve multiple teams.
"I try to maintain a relationship with my counterparts in adjacent states, because we need each other," said Eggeman. "We try to keep open that line of communication. We share resource information, locations of assets, what's available, what we might think we need, that sort of thing."
Eggeman was more of an observer for this exercise, but he said one of the maps he saw had teams covering an area of about six square kilometers.
"They'll try and locate the signal and pinpoint an area that'll help the boots-on-the-ground figure out where they should be," Eggeman said. "I think they're going to have some kind of airborne relay communications up, as well. They'll have two aircraft up at a time and rotate. It's an exercise for the pilots, too. They have to have an aircraft come on scene before they have the next one leave, so they have to kind of make a handoff in the sky."
Kershner and Eggeman oversaw the operation from inside one of West Virginia's two mobile emergency operations centers. The vehicle serves as a command and control center and is full of sophisticated mapping and communications equipment. One side of the interior contains standard 911 communications equipment.
"These work stations are for emergency communications, they're set up the same as for 911 dispatch," Kershner said. "When we have a big operation, we'll bring in a local 911 operator because they know the local officers and how they operate, so they're comfortable working with this."
All the sophisticated communications equipment is satellite-based, and rescuers can run a live video teleconferencing call with anybody, anywhere in the world. A mast-mounted camera towering over the command center provides a live feed of the exterior of the vehicle and it can be "set to perimeter so you can see what's sneakin' up on you" according to Kershner.
Kershner said they've been involved in four presidential visits, and the mobile command center would run you about $2 million nowadays, depending on the capabilities you wanted.
The most exciting part of the exercise took place after the survivor was located Saturday afternoon. An Army HH-60L Black Hawk helicopter crew, from Williamstown, flew in for a rescue hoist demonstration and provided rescuers and Civil Air Patrol volunteers a chance to sit inside the aircraft and learn about what the flight crew does.
U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer, 3 Dan Hutchins said it's about a four-and-a-half hour drive from Williamstown, but the crew made the flight in about 45 minutes. Hutchins said the crew generally cruises at around 120 knots (roughly 138 mph), but the aircraft is capable of faster speeds in an emergency.
Hutchins said the Black Hawk weighs about 22,500 pounds when it's fully loaded and fueled and can fly as high as 14,000 feet in the air.
"A lot of that's got to do with our oxygen requirements," said Hutchins. "But it also deals with the engines, and what they can handle with air intake the higher you get."
Hutchins said the Black Hawk is a 2004 model and the price tag would run you about $14 million.
"That was back when they were new, I don't know what the price might be with inflation," laughed Hutchins.
The HH-60L designation refers to the helicopter's mission purpose and design. "HH" refers to hospital helicopter and the "L" notates the size of the twin engines made by General Electric. The helicopter has no armament or ordnance, and is heavily modified to fulfill its role as a search and rescue aircraft. Some of the modifications include an external rescue hoist and two large fuel tanks that allow the crew four hours of flight time without refueling. The four man crew is comprised of two pilots, a crew chief and a flight medic.
"It's a search and rescue helicopter," said 1st Sgt. David Lee Baldwin. "What we do is respond to lost hunters, hikers, lost children, that sort of thing. We have a FLIR system on board, it's a forward looking infrared system, and it really helps at nighttime if someone's lost in the woods."
Baldwin dispelled some of the smoke-and-mirrors you see in Hollywood.
"The rotors are not sharp. If you hit a power line, you're going down," he joked. "It's funny, in movies, these things are always easy to start, and you can carry on a conversation right next to it. Nope. These things are loud man, real loud. This thing produces 150 mph winds, it'll rip tiles right off a roof."
The soldiers were inundated with the sort of questions you'd expect from a curious youngster, 'what's this button do?' or 'can I drive?'
"Yeah don't pull that, that makes the door fall off," laughed Baldwin. "That's in case we crash and we can't open the door, or if we crash in water."
Baldwin said the helicopter and crew were from the same unit that responded to the downed Navy helicopter in Pocahontas County in February 2010.
"It was our unit that lowered the two medics down," explained Baldwin.
In the end, around 200 registrants from almost two dozen agencies participated in Operation 2012 Apocalypse. Kershner said Pocahontas County is prime training ground for an event like this.
"Because of the quiet zone," said Kershner. "We get to test any new communications gear or integrated communications. As you know, your cell phones don't work here, and a lot of your radios don't work here either. It gives us a good place to test things."
Eggeman said he was pleased with the exercise and he enjoys coming to scenic Pocahontas County.
"The Boy Scouts sure know how to buy property," laughed Eggeman. "This is turning out great."