Forest Service short-haul program conducts first medevac

The U.S. Forest Service’s Emergency Medical Short-Haul program has completed its first operational medical evacuation of an injured firefighter.

A Forest Service short-hauler prepares to be lifted by a helicopter
The U.S. Forest Service’s Emergency Medical Short-Haul program provides a rescue capability for wildland firefighters in otherwise inaccessible locations. Gabe Medina Photo
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The event occurred on June 18 on the Trail Mountain Fire on the Manti La Sal National Forest in Utah. According to a Forest Service spokesperson, a hand crew was working in steep terrain when a firefighter suffered an injury to his leg.

The injury was not life-threatening, but “it was going to take the whole crew to carry him out” through the difficult terrain, the spokesperson said. It was determined that it would be safer and more efficient to evacuate the firefighter using the short-haul method, in which a rescuer and patient are flown at the end of a helicopter’s long line.

The rugged mountainous terrain from which the firefighter was evacuated
The injured firefighter was evacuated from the area denoted with an ‘X’. USFS Photo

A short-haul capable Teton Interagency Helitack crew configured their helicopter for the mission, then lifted the firefighter from the site of his injury to a nearby drop point. From there, a ground ambulance delivered the firefighter to a local hospital, where he was treated and released that evening.

The successful mission was the type of scenario the Forest Service envisioned when it launched its Emergency Medical Short-Haul program in 2015. The program is modeled on existing National Park Service (NPS) short-haul programs, but unlike those programs does not serve members of the public.

Instead, its focus is on providing an emergency rescue capability for firefighters and other agency personnel in remote and otherwise inaccessible areas. While NPS helicopter crews have provided this service to the Forest Service in the past, coverage has been limited.

Looking up at a helicopter equipped with the Boost HEC system
All five helicopters in the Forest Service’s short-haul program have now been equipped with the Boost human external cargo system. Matt Lancaster Photo

From an initial two modules in 2015, the Forest Service’s short-haul program has expanded to five modules for the 2018 fire season, including the Teton Interagency, Wenatchee, Krassel, Tucson, and Central Montana helitack crews. Each short-haul load consists of a pilot, spotter, EMT short-hauler, and a short-hauler with all of the necessary equipment for patient packaging and extraction. According to national short-haul specialist Seth Weber, 68 personnel are currently trained and certified to act as short-haulers in national operations.

New this year, all five helicopters contracted for the short-haul modules have been converted to the Boost Systems human external cargo (HEC) system, which is currently the only HEC system that has been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to the standards of 14 Code of Federal Regulations 27.865.

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Group photo of the Teton helitack crew with a helicopter
Members of the Teton helitack crew are among the 68 personnel currently certified for national short-haul operations. Matt Lancaster Photo

Weber said that this year’s short-haul training encompassed the implementation of the Boost system, including helicopter installation, aircraft inspection and carding, pilot evaluation, and spotter training. “This is part of continuous program improvements and innovation efforts to enhance mission safety,” he said.

The Trail Mountain Fire began when a prescribed fire escaped its boundaries on June 6, spreading rapidly during a wind event on June 10. As of the evening of June 20, the fire had burned approximately 15,000 acres (6,070 hectares) and was reported to be 59 percent contained, with just over 500 personnel assigned to the incident.

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