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Posted on: Monday, February 5, 2001

Army pilot cites hazard to rescues

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Army medevac helicopter rumbled toward the beach at Waimea Bay on a routine training run. As pilot Maj. William Grimes brought it slowly toward a level patch of sand, beachgoers refused to move.

One mechanic works on the nose of a UH-60 Blackhawk while another works on the rotor of the aircraft during a maintenance check. They were checking the balance of the main rotor blade of the helicopter, one of several used in the medevac of seriously injured people on O‘ahu.

Advertiser library photo • Dec. 31,1998

The frantic pilot waved for them to get out of his way so he could land. Their only response was a sea of friendly waves.

The pilot flashed his helicopter’s lights to attract firefighters who had come to clear a landing zone, but it took too long to get their attention.

Grimes felt a familiar frustration. If only his Army radio could connect with firefighters’ radios, Grimes could call emergency workers and get help.

The radios, however, cannot communicate. They are incompatible.

On missions flown by Grimes and fellow pilots in the Army’s 68th Medical Detachment, direct communication with the Honolulu Fire Department is impossible until the helicopters touch down.

Grimes was able to land that day at Waimea, but couldn’t get over what had happened.

"The point was really driven home to me then," said Grimes, the commander of the 68th. "I thought: This was crazy. We can’t talk to the fire department.’ "

Although complaints about the communications difficulty have surfaced on occasion, until recently the Army was resigned to live with the problem. But the October landing at Waimea and a November mission to transport a critically injured cliff diver off Portlock in Hawaii Kai have heightened concern among pilots, who feel better communication is needed.

The pilots’ preferred solution is a $220,000 system of Wulfsberg multi-frequency radios for the medevac helicopters.

The fire department supports the idea, but officials say the city doesn’t have the money to purchase the radios. By July, the fire department plans to have 20 new hand-held radios that can communicate with the helicopters available for use in outlying areas. But the $9,500 system isn’t the Army’s first choice.

"It is not the best option for us, but something is better than nothing," Grimes said.

The Wulfsberg system’s high cost threatens to rule it out. Fire, ambulance and hospital officials say no single agency can foot the bill alone, and the fire department has labeled the hand-held radios a "fix" that will fill the gap for now.

"We support anything that enhances operations," said Capt. Richard Soo, fire department spokesman. "We did find a fix that will help us at a fraction of the cost, and it allows more mobility."

Federal regulations prevent the Army from purchasing the equipment for the helicopters because they are used for civilian rescues. Communities around the country and in Hawaii have donated needed equipment to their medevac programs, Grimes said.

Grimes said the $220,000 cost would cover four removable radios that could be used in each of his nine helicopters.

The radios would tap into the existing civilian system and let the Army communicate with city firefighters, paramedics and police, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, Grimes said.

They would also allow dispatchers to tell Army pilots that a landing site had been changed.

Saving state millions

The Army medevac unit — dubbed MAST, for Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic — transports civilian accident victims from remote locations to hospital emergency rooms. Army pilots, who use their missions to maintain combat readiness, flew 96 medevac missions last year. Their UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters are a familiar sight on the North Shore and Leeward Oahu. It is estimated that they have saved the state nearly $5 million in transportation costs since the program began in 1974.

Army pilots say the Wulfsberg radios would have eased the frustration they felt in November when they flew to Portlock to airlift a critically injured cliff diver near the ocean’s edge at Spitting Cave.

With no place to land, Chief Warrant Officer Michael Turner, the pilot in charge of the flight, said he arrived at the scene but quickly left after the wind blast of his helicopter blades sent emergency equipment flying. He then took the Blackhawk offshore, where he waited for 45 minutes, out of the communications loop and unsure of what was happening on the ground.

"We didn’t know if they were ready, if they were done packaging him or what," Turner said. "There was no way to tell us."

Turner finally went back, lowered a medic and picked up the victim. The helicopter was soon on its way to the Queen’s Medical Center, where the victim later died. The Army and emergency crews say the wait did not affect the outcome, but the incident prompted renewed discussion of the radio issue.

Another problem with the military radio system on medevac flights, Army pilots say, is that it can black out when a ridge or mountain comes between the helicopter and Wheeler Army Air Field.

Out of our reach’

Although an on-board Army medic can use a hand-held radio to communicate with city paramedics on the ground, it is not always easy for the medic to communicate with the pilot, Grimes said.

"It is more advantageous if the pilot is aware of all communications, all the time," Grimes said.

Robin McCulloch, chief of the city ambulance service, is a member of the MAST Advisory Committee, a coalition of government, hospital and military agencies that governs the medevac flights. Because the committee has yet to receive a formal proposal from the Army, nothing has been rejected. But McCulloch cautioned that $220,000 "is way out of our reach."

"We have to do a feasibility study, and it shouldn’t be based on what a pilot wants," McCulloch said. "It may be like wanting a BMW, and we can only afford a Chevrolet."

In the past, the MAST committee has solicited donations from hospitals, community groups and government agencies to purchase radios and medical equipment for the program. About 15 years ago, when the Army flew UH-1 Huey helicopters for the missions, the state donated several thousand dollars for Wulfsberg radios, McCulloch said.

Problems surfaced, however, when the Army sent the Hueys to the Mainland for maintenance. Different helicopters would come back without the wiring needed to support a Wulfsberg radio. The radios fell into disuse, and while the old models are still with the city, McCulloch said they are too bulky.

Out at Wheeler, Grimes isn’t saying anyone is ignoring the situation.

His crews welcome the missions, welcome the chance to help.

But he has a bottom line, too.

"I have a responsibility to make sure my pilots are flying in the safest environment," Grimes said. "It is my guys I launch at 2 in the morning. I hear the stories of complications, so I feel a personal charge to get to the bottom of this thing."

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