PORT ANGELES — First responders from across the North Olympic Peninsula are practicing “hot loading” patients into helicopters while the rotors are spinning now that air ambulance service Life Flight Network has a base in Port Angeles.
On Saturday, firefighters from Clallam Fire District No. 2, Clallam Fire District No. 4 and Port Angeles Fire Department trained with Life Flight, strapping mock patients in and loading them into the helicopter with the rotors whizzing just overhead.
“It’s surprising sometimes how much downwash from the rotors is there,” said Jake Patterson, assistant chief for Clallam Fire District No. 2. “It’s loud, so trying to communicate underneath is difficult. You become aware of the force coming down from the rotor blades.”
Crews spent about an hour in a classroom setting learning about the process before going to William R. Fairchild International Airport to get some hands-on experience Saturday.
They were instructed not to approach the helicopter from the back, to have hearing and eye protection and make sure all their gear was secure. If anything loose flies into the rear rotor the flight is over.
Life Flight announced last month that it would locate a base in Port Angeles, an area that has primarily been serviced by Airlift Northwest. Emergency flights have been available in Clallam and Jefferson counties since earlier this month.
“Since we opened our base we’ve been doing lots of training with the fire departments and EMS agencies throughout the county and into Jefferson County as well so that everyone knows how to safely do this,” said Jacob Dalstra, regional director for Life Flight.
He said that so far much of the training has been with first responders in Clallam County, but he has talked with chiefs in Jefferson County and is getting training scheduled for Jefferson County agencies.
“It’s important to work together with the EMS agencies so that when an emergency happens it is a well-oiled machine,” Dalstra said. “When a real emergency happens we’ll be ready, trained and be able to move quickly and safely.”
Some air ambulance services shut down the helicopter when it lands, but Life Flight keeps its helicopters running.
“When there’s a patient that has sustained major trauma, a cardiac event or a neurological event, we want to get them to the receiving facility as quickly as possible,” Dalstra said. “It takes about three minutes to shut down the helicopter and about three minutes to turn it back on, see if we can leave the blades spinning and load the patient into our helicopter, that will save the patient about six minutes.”
Patterson said the training was a good chance for first responders to ask about logistics and that not everyone had worked under a spinning rotor before.
He said he is excited to have an air ambulance based in Port Angeles. Having the helicopter that close could mean Life Flight arrives at a scene before paramedics, he said.
“We provide a lot of services out west near Lake Crescent where it will be critical to get the helicopter out there,” Patterson said. “There may be a chance the helicopter arrives on scene before we do, based on drive times.
“I think we’re going to see a lot better patient outcomes because of that rapid transport.”
Greg Waters, chief of Clallam Fire District No. 4, said he is happy to have a helicopter based in Port Angeles and that he looks forward to faster response times.
“They have the ability to launch here in Port Angeles which means we can get coverage a lot quicker,” Waters said.
Waters said that some have worked with helicopter services in the past, so the process isn’t too different for them.
“You just have to keep safety in mind and part of the training today was to let everyone know which side to approach the aircraft from, what the dangers are and what to avoid,” Waters said.
Life Flight Network is offering $65-a-year family memberships that cover the entire cost of emergency flights for “emergent medically necessary transport” for all family members, Dalstra said.
The cost otherwise begins at $19,993, according to a list of frequently asked questions on the company’s website.
“It can be very expensive, that’s why we encourage everyone to become a member so they don’t have to worry about it,” Dalstra said.
“We’re looking forward to working with Life Flight as well as Airlift [Northwest],” Waters said. “They are a valuable part of our EMS system here and if we can utilize them in the best interest of the patient, that’s what we’re after.”
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].