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Crash course in heli-safety

Emergency responders team up for safety drill at Sutter Roseville
By: Nathan Donato-Weinstein The Press-Tribune
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Writhing in pain, the helicopter crash victim who escaped from the flames struggled to tell a firefighter where she was injured. “Where am I?” she groaned. “My head…” “We’re gonna get you in the hospital in one second,” said Roseville Fire Engineer Will Raby. The scenario was fake, the fire imaginary. But the lessons learned were deadly serious as emergency responders and hospital personnel practiced for the unthinkable last Friday: a helicopter crash at Sutter Roseville Medical Center. Though officials routinely perform safety drills, Friday’s event was the most extensive yet at Sutter involving a helicopter accident, bringing together air ambulance, paramedics, firefighters and hospital staff. “The goal is in the event a helicopter crash, we’re prepared with our fire, rescue and hazardous materials response,” said Roseville Fire Marshal Dennis Mathisen. “So we’re exercising our skills in all that, as well as the whole emergency medical services side.” Sutter Roseville’s level-two trauma center hasn’t experienced a major incident, but statistics show medical chopper crashes have been rising in recent years. Across the nation, 65 medical helicopter crashes were reported between 2000 and 2004, according to statistics from Helicopter Association International. That’s up from 32 in the five years prior. In the last year, more than two dozen people died in crashes in the U.S., most recently in Illinois, where a 13-month-old girl, a pilot, nurse and paramedic all died. SRMC is one of the busiest trauma centers in Northern California, with about 44 helicopter landings a month, Nelson said. Organizers of the Roseville drill were keen to assess potential pitfalls in an emergency response, such as avoiding potential secondary explosions and harmful hazardous materials. “If you can’t prevent it, we plan for it,” said Barbara Todd, emergency coordinator for Sutter Roseville. On Friday, the “mayday” call went out at precisely 10 a.m. The scenario: the a chopper carrying a patient who was injured in an auto accident crash landed for unknown reasons on the hospital’s helipad on top of a three-story parking garage. Minutes later, Roseville Fire crews arrive on the scene. The first order of business is to make sure it’s safe to approach and knock down flames. As crews run a hose to the garage, others set to work getting the mock victims out of the chopper and into the emergency room below, which was already mobilized. “We still have a good amount of fire,” one first-on-the-scene responder called into a radio. “There’s at least one victim I can visualize from here.” Quickly, more details emerged. “We have a total of four victims, all critical with multi-system injuries,” another firefighter said over the radio. “There’s extensive burns to a few of the victims.” Forty-five minutes later, all victims were removed from the scene to be treated, as hazmat crews continued their work. Fire Inspector Tom Dodaro said emergency personnel were satisfied overall with the response but that they would analyze the results in detail after the event.