Training enhances helpful helicopters

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New Mexico State Police officers and Socorro County Sheriff’s Department deputies learned about bringing in a flying ambulance during a class with Petroleum Helicopters Incorporated Air Medical on Feb. 8.

Laura London/El Defensor Chieftain: New Mexico State Police officers, from left, Veronica Saenz, Robert Alguire and Toby Lafave learn about radio communication with air medical pilots during a training session Feb. 8 from Jessica Perez, right, Petroleum Helicopters Incorporated Air Medical flight paramedic.

PHI Air Medical flight paramedic Jessica Perez said the classes are usually held yearly for emergency medical technicians and law enforcement, although she has done four such classes just recently for the benefit of new hires. The class teaches proper radio communication techniques and how to set up a landing zone for a medical helicopter.

The landing zone is a 100-by-100-foot area marked off with flares. Emergency responders on the ground — whether they be firefighters, law enforcement, search and rescue volunteers, or someone else — first make sure the landing zone is clear of obstructions and loose debris.

Perez said clearing out loose debris from the landing zone is very important because anything can be a potential missile. The rotors of a helicopter create a circular pattern of wind that can pick up debris and bring it sailing back in to get tangled in the rotor system.

Another concern is dust, which can create a brown-out when the helicopter settles in to land. Perez said emergency responders must wet down a dusty area or — better — set the landing zone in another spot, such as a grassy area.

People on the ground also need to be aware of obstructions like cars, telephone poles, fences, trees and buildings. The landing zone must be set up well clear of obstructions, and people on the ground must report to the pilot any such obstructions within about a quarter-mile of the landing zone.

SCSD Deputy William Armijo said the pilot also needs to know as much as possible about the patient. He said the area inside the medical helicopter is very small, so if the patient is particularly tall or heavy, the pilot needs to know.

The pilot especially needs to be advised if the patient has head injuries. Armijo explained a head injury can cause a patient to become combative, which could be catastrophic for all if the pilot is not prepared.

Perez said rural New Mexico needs air medical services.

Perez has been working in EMS for about 20 years, the last eight in air medical. She likes the helicopters more than fixed wing craft because they are not as enclosed, so occupants can see everything outside. Helicopters function better in high winds than planes do. Also, they can land right at the hospital so patients don’t have to stop at an airport first, then be shuttled by ambulance.

Perez said patients go straight from the helicopter to surgery, and they don’t have to go through the emergency room first. This is beneficial to stroke victims, for instance, for whom time is of the essence.

Perez said PHI helicopters also carry blood, and they are the only air medical provider in the state that does so. PHI can start a blood transfusion en route to a hospital.

Perez said PHI helicopters don’t carry rescue equipment, but they can pick up an injured hiker if they can find a landing place so search and rescue volunteers would not have to carry a person too far. She said even if there turns out to be no suitable landing place within a reasonable distance, the air crew can get exact coordinates for ground crews to go get the patient.

It is only possible to fit one patient in a helicopter at a time. If there are more injured people who need a lift, PHI calls more helicopters. Perez said emergency responders can have multiple medical helicopters launch, and then cancel if they don’t need all of them. The company has one helicopter based in Socorro, one in Albuquerque and a third in Grants. If three aren’t enough, Perez said another company will be called.

Perez said PHI conducts night drills with law enforcement and EMTs; they set up a mock accident and perform the whole procedure at night. One drill was held Saturday night in San Antonio with SCSD deputies and volunteer firefighters.

The drill started just after 7 p.m. on a paved road just east of San Antonio. Perez called in a fake mishap with two gunshot victims. Sheriff’s deputies and firefighters blocked a section of the road with their vehicles and set up a landing zone, which was marked with flares that lit up in red and blue.

The PHI helicopter landed right on the road, with the front facing the one blue flare. The PHI pilot and EMT emerged from the craft and loaded the mock victim, a volunteer firefighter on a stretcher, into the helicopter and took off.

For the drill, the helicopter landed at the San Antonio fire station with its mock patient, then returned to the scene of the fake mishap for the other.

Perez said in addition to the drill at San Antonio, two other night drills are planned for different areas of the county to give as many emergency responders as possible a chance to practice working with the medical helicopters. Everyone is cross-trained to do everything — set up the landing zone, use the radio, etc. — so that medical responders can focus on caring for the patients.

At night, Perez said PHI pilots wear night vision goggles. One person in the helicopter keeps the goggles off so they can make out red lights and observe the weather. She explained all lights show up white through the goggles, plus the goggles enable a person to see through the weather — so the person wearing them can’t quite tell how serious the weather is.

On Sept. 11, 2011, Perez was the patient. She said it was “an eye-opener” because although she can’t remember any of it, many who were at the scene later told her she had coherent conversations with them.

As she spoke of her accident, she stressed how important every agency is in the emergency response network because New Mexico is so rural.

The accident happened on Interstate 25 about 10:30 p.m. The NMSP patrolman who first responded to the scene had not yet gone through the PHI class; he was scheduled to be in a class about two weeks later. However, the patrolman had a card PHI distributes that lists tips on landing zone procedures.

“He used that card — he read off the back,” Perez said. “… So he could tell the pilot all the things he needed to do.”

To this day, Perez thanks the patrolman for saving her life every time she sees him. She is also grateful to the people who were driving northbound on I-25 that night, who only saw a cloud of dust and headlights disappearing from the road. It was enough to make them turn around and head back toward her.

“Because, actually, I rolled off into the ditch and landed on the tires,” Perez said, “so nobody would have ever found me.”

She said her own co-workers and other emergency responders at the scene didn’t recognize her because of her injuries.

“They didn’t recognize me because this part was gone,” Perez said, indicating the left side of her face. “If it wasn’t for things in my car, and my car, they wouldn’t have known.”

Perez said her car was full of items labeled “PHI” — including little PHI flashlights strewn all over the road, which the passers-by initially used to look for her when they came to investigate the disappearing headlights.

Today, Perez has a small scar on her forehead from the accident; it somewhat resembles the scar given to the main character in the “Harry Potter” series of movies.

Perez was absent from work almost five months as she recovered from the accident. She said the experience gave her “a healthy respect” for recovery time of people who have been in accidents.

“We go from A to B with people, and we don’t see them after that,” she said. “But being in the accident and the recovery — you really realize how long it takes to really heal.”

Perez urges everyone to help make an accident scene as safe as possible for all responders.

“When you see a scene, respect that,” she said, “and don’t try to go around it or through it.”