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Protocol for Rescue by Helicopter

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  • Protocol for Rescue by Helicopter

    In the past couple of weeks I chatted w/ friends about rescuing hikers via helicopter in the case injury/physical ailment. I know having read various rescue reports that a helicopter rescue is not implemented (or usually delayed) due to, say, weather conditions.

    For those intimately familiar with wilderness search & rescue, what is the protocol that is followed by, say, DEC Rangers (and I'd be curious about New Hampshire as well) in determining whether a helicopter is sent out on a SAR mission? Such as weather and visibility, type of injury, etc.

    Thanks!
    We are closer now than we were five minutes ago

  • #2
    As I understand it, there are numerous factors that are considered in the decision to fly a helicopter. What it really all comes down to is a risk/benefit analysis. Do the benefits of using the helicopter outweigh the risks (and costs)?

    Some things that are considered in the decision about how best to extract a patient from the backcountry:
    • Nature of the injury: A patient with life threatening injuries requiring immediate definitive hospital care is probably the best example of a rescue situation that might necessitate helicopter use. Injuries in which the patient is rendered immobile, unable to hike out under their own power may also necessitate helicopter use. Anyone who is able to safely hike out on their own isn't likely to get a helicopter ride. (Note: A twisted ankle or a broken leg does not necessarily render someone "immobile." Its not unheard of for rangers to bring in a pair of crutches for the patient to use to get out under their own power after the injury has been stabilized.)
    • Remoteness: Generally, with an injury that incapacitates a patient, a carryout is going to be the preferred method of extraction if it can be done safely. Carry outs are low-risk, low-cost, and low-impact. When you have an injury in an extremely remote, difficult to access location where a carryout may become a multi-day process though, a helicopter extraction may be considered instead. Sometimes, helicopter extractions may even be favored over carry outs if it means the difference between getting everyone out of the woods before dark or not (things tend to get a lot more complicated after dark).
    • Suitability of the terrain for an extraction: Rugged and densely forested terrain can make it very difficult to evacuate someone by helicopter. A landing that allows the helicopter to shut down is the preferred method, but this necessitates a cleared area at least 100 feet in diameter with flat ground on which to safely land- something you almost never see in the backcountry. Barring that, a cable extraction is still possible but this is significantly higher risk. You still need a decently sized clearing free of dead trees (which can get thrown around by the propeller wash). Sending people up and down on the cable can get pretty sketchy too, as the propeller wash tends to push them around quite a bit. Raising someone on a litter necessitates a rope held by someone on the ground to keep the litter steady until it's secure on the helicopter, and that person needs space to maneuver without the rope getting caught up in a tree. To further add to the complexities, any time a helicopter is hovering low over the forest there needs to be a spotter watching the tail rotor to make sure it stays well clear of the trees.
    • Crowd control: Rescues tend to attract onlookers in the backcountry, eager to take pictures and to go home with a story to tell their friends about the "rescue they witnessed." Rescues involving a helicopter are even worse. In the High Peaks, any extraction involving a helicopter may involve a fair amount of crowd control, with one or more rangers assigned to keep the crowds at a safe distance. A single onlooker who puts themselves in danger for the sake of a few photos may be enough to force a helicopter to wave off.
    • Availability of alternative methods of extraction: A helicopter might not be the fastest or best means of extraction by vehicle. 4WD trucks, ATVs, motor boats, air boats, and float planes are all available options as well, and all are generally lower risk than a helicopter extraction.
    • Weather and time of day: These are pretty obvious- it becomes riskier to fly in inclement weather and at night. If the patient can be stabilized, it may be as simple as waiting until daylight to fly them out. Inclement weather with no forecasted break in the near future may force what could've been a helicopter extraction to be a carry out instead.
    • Cost: With non-life threatening injuries, this is definitely going to be a consideration as well. Is it worth the cost of flying the helicopter to get the patient out? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.


    Amongst the general hiking public, I think that there is a perception that the decision whether to fly or not to fly is based primarily on the associated monetary costs. In actuality, I believe that it is based far more on the associated risks. It's not that the helicopter is cheap to fly (it isn't), but that the state helicopters are going to be flown on a regular basis anyways even if they aren't needed- the pilots need to keep up their proficiency. But the risks associated with helicopter use in backcountry rescues are, I think, a lot higher than most people in the hiking community realize.

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    • #3
      Originally posted by DSettahr View Post
      Amongst the general hiking public, I think that there is a perception that the decision whether to fly or not to fly is based primarily on the associated monetary costs.
      There is also the perception that if one gets hurt or stuck in a bad situation (e.g. "I shouldn't have gone up this slide now I'm scared as Hell to move!"), then a helicopter will be readily available. But, alas ...
      We are closer now than we were five minutes ago

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      • #4
        Originally posted by MtnManJohn View Post
        There is also the perception that if one gets hurt or stuck in a bad situation (e.g. "I shouldn't have gone up this slide now I'm scared as Hell to move!"), then a helicopter will be readily available. But, alas ...
        State helicopters and crews are not continuously on "standby" awaiting a rescue call. I have been on searches with the DEC in which a helicopter might have been useful, but was otherwise occupied in other duties in other parts of the state.
        "Leave the beaten track behind occasionally and dive into the woods. Every time you do you will be certain to find something you have never seen before." - Alexander Graham Bell

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        • #5
          Originally posted by MtnManJohn View Post
          In the past couple of weeks I chatted w/ friends about rescuing hikers via helicopter in the case injury/physical ailment. I know having read various rescue reports that a helicopter rescue is not implemented (or usually delayed) due to, say, weather conditions.

          For those intimately familiar with wilderness search & rescue, what is the protocol that is followed by, say, DEC Rangers (and I'd be curious about New Hampshire as well) in determining whether a helicopter is sent out on a SAR mission? Such as weather and visibility, type of injury, etc.

          Thanks!
          One thing to keep in mind is that the helicopters are piloted by and under the control of the State Police and not DEC. One of the State Police regulations is that there will be no hoists made at night for any reason. So with limited places to land in the high peaks a night helicopter rescue would be highly unlikely. For day light requests made by DEC safety is the only factor as to whether a helicopter is dispatched and cost does not come into the decision.
          46-R (W) - By Da Holy Feesh

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          • #6
            You also have the right to refuse a "life flight / helicopter". Not just in the backcountry but in general. Some medics will prematurely call in a "bird" even if it is not necessary. and the going rate is about 14K to start off. Just something to consider.

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            • #7
              Originally posted by SummerLynn315 View Post
              You also have the right to refuse a "life flight / helicopter". Not just in the backcountry but in general. Some medics will prematurely call in a "bird" even if it is not necessary. and the going rate is about 14K to start off. Just something to consider.
              Rescue by helicopter in the High Peaks is performed by New York State Police helicopters and State Police personnel, assisted by State Forest Rangers. They are called by the New York State Forest rangers and are not dispatched by hikers calling for help. When a State Police helicopter is used whether it is a back country rescue or a medevac to a hospital from anywhere else in the State of New York there is no charge or cost to the person needing the helicopter. I assume that if an injured person in the High Peaks tells the ranger that he does not want to be airlifted out then the ranger does not make the request to the State Police and they have to use other means to get the person out. Just to clear things up the current hourly rate for operation of a State Police helicopter including all costs is about $1200.00 per hour but it is something that all of us taxpayers in the State have to pay for if they are ever needed just like we pay for everything else.
              46-R (W) - By Da Holy Feesh

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