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Rescues, drops made easier, safer with helicopter hoist
CalFire helicopters are well known for fighting wildfires and making rescues of people injured and stranded in difficult to reach areas.
The helicopter at the CalFire Vina Helitack has conducted both of those missions on dozens of occasions.
But those operations came with a lot of risk.
That risk factor has dropped significantly now that the Vina helicopter has been equipped with a new motorized cable hoist system.
On Wednesday, CalFire Battalion Chief Randy Rapp, who oversees the Vina Helitack and the Red Bluff Unit, presented the new equipment and CalFire firefighters demonstrated its capabilities.
"The 170-pound motorized cable hoist has a 600 pound load capacity, a 258 foot cable and cost $188,000," Rapp said.
The hoist, and nine others like it equipped in CalFire helicopters throughout the state, were all state funded, Rapp explained.
"This is a great tool and we are really excited to have it here," he said.
Previous to the new equipment, for 15 years the Vina helicopter used the "shorthaul" system to drop firefighters into wildfire areas and to make rescues.
"In that system we had to make rope rescues where we dropped a rope down, attached a rescued victim, and with them suspended from the rope down below, the helicopter flew them, sometimes miles, to a safe place to unload," the battalion chief said.
The system was fraught with dangers, both to the dangling victim and to the helicopter and its crew.
"With the new equipment we no longer have someone suspended below the helicopter. It is a much safer operation as we can hoist them right into the copter," Rapp said.
The motorized hoist is attached to the helicopter a few feet behind a pilot's seat at the side opening of the copter and has an arm that can rotate from inside the copter to outside.
Controlled by a mechanical "pendant" handled by the operation's crew chief, the hoist's cable is stainless steel and about the width of a pencil.
Depending on the rescue mission or if the copter is deploying firefighters to a wildfire, the hoist system has at least six different types of equipment that attaches to the victim, rescue personnel or firefighter, such as a stokes litter, screamer suit, and belly band, which in turn is clamped onto the hoist cable to send someone to the ground or hoist them up into the helicopter.
"Each is designed to be quick and safe," said CalFire Capt. Ethan Darnell.
The motorized cable hoist is removable from the copter for the fire season when the helicopter is busy fighting wildfires, landing crews in and out of fire areas and dropping water and fire repellent.
"During the off-fire season, the hoist will remain in the helicopter," said Rapp.
Even during the fire season, if the helicopter is available and a rescue operation is needed, Rapp said it only takes about 10 to 15 minutes to get the hoist installed and the copter off the ground.
Each and every firefighter at the Vina Helitack, 12 firefighters and four captains, are trained in using the hoist system and has undergone at least 40 hours of initial training and additional training since April.
Utilizing the hoist requires a crew of three people — the crew chief who operates the pendant control, and two rescuers.
"For this area the new hoist can be used for water rescues in rivers or lakes, tandem rescues, cliff rescues and rescues from extremely remote sites," Darnell said. "We even have the capability to hook up a medic during the rescue so he can be with the patient at all times. This equipment can get us to and through just about any scenario you can think of."
Vina Helitack Forestry Pilot Brent Starr said from the pilot's perspective flying the helicopter with the new hoist system versus the former shorthaul system is "night and day."
"Before the pilot was burdened with having someone suspended 70 to 200 feet under the helicopter, sometimes at dusk or in the dark. It was very difficult and dangerous," he said.
He explained that three years ago he was piloting the helicopter in an ATV rollover rescue mission near Whiskeytown and he had to fly the suspended victim nearly 15 miles to a helibase for rescue.
"This hoist eliminates all that," Starr stated. "We now can hoist the victim right into the helicopter and safely fly them to wherever they need to go."
The CalFire Vina helicopter is the only one in the area with the motorized hoist system and a crew to man it.
Starr said California Highway Patrol has a motorized hoist system but it is unmanned and the Butte Sheriff's Department helicopter is still only capable of shorthauls.
The pilot said the Vina helicopter has a "long history."
"It flew missions in Vietnam during the war in the 1970s. We acquired it in 1992 when it was phased out by the military," Starr explained.
Capable to flying at 120 knots it can carry enough fuel to fly for 2.5 hours and can carry 10,500 pounds, and carry 11 people, including the pilots.
Its water bucket can hold and disperse 324 gallons of water during a single flyover.
Starr said the helicopter flew 405 hours this fire season and dropped 780,000 gallons of water.
It is completely taken apart, inspected and updated, down to every nut and bolt, and put back together every 10 years, said the pilot.