FORT POLK — Helicopters are a common sight around Fort Polk, but what happens if a chopper goes down in a remote area? The first responders to get to the scene could be civilian firefighters — who might not know to watch for still-spinning rotors at night.

By Jean Dubiel

Guardian staff writer

 

FORT POLK — Helicopters are a common sight around Fort Polk, but what happens if a chopper goes down in a remote area? The first responders to get to the scene could be civilian firefighters — who might not know to watch for still-spinning rotors at night.

There are other problems, too. Do they know how to get the pilot and crew out of their seats? Can they find the emergency fuel shut off switch?

Thats why Leesville and New Llano firefighters got special training Jan. 19. Personnel were briefed on the crash rescue procedure for Fort Polk’s most commonly used aircraft — the UH-60 Blackhawk, OH-58 Kiowa, UH-72 Lakota, C-130 Hercules and CH-47 Chinook, as well as unmanned aviation vehicles.

Fort Polk firefighters assisted in the training, held in a parking lot at Northwestern State University. They brought along a “helicopter” — a propane-fueled training aid in the shape of a helicopter that can be set ablaze and extinguished quickly.

Roland Cimini, fire training officer with Fort Polk’s fire department, said the training helps civilian firefighters understand the dangers of dealing with helicopter crashes.

For example, the front of the aircraft should be treated like the barrel of a weapon — always assume it’s loaded and don’t get in front of it. Being struck by the rotors is an extreme danger.

“There are two rotors on the UH-60, and everyone sees the one on top,” Cimini said. “But it’s the rear rotor that can be very dangerous, especially if it is dark.”

Cimini showed firefighters where the fuel tanks are stored on each configuration of aircraft. A UH-60 flight crew, which flew in for the exercise, demonstrated vital components for rescue on their aircraft, such as where the first aid kits and fire extinguishers are.

Firefighters also learned how to remove pilots from seats, the location of the on-board fire suppression system, how to remove doors from hinges, and more.

Then it was time to light the prop and practice fire suppression. The firefighters used an indirect stream of water — pointed not at the fire but near it, so as not to spread any fuel.

They also learned that they should always approach from the side of the aircraft.

David Kass, assistant chief of training for fire emergencies at Fort Polk, said everyone beneits from this sort of training.

“This is a great opportunity for us to work jointly with Leesville and New Llano,” he said. “It’s a demonstration of the great relationship that we continue to cultivate with them, and offers a win-win for us and the community.”

This is part of a trend in the Army, and has been dubbed the Public-Private Partnership initiative, or PPP. Federal agencies and local firefighter share training equipment, facilities and other resources. Also personnel are better trained all around. There are cost savings and a spirit of teamwork, and resources are used more efficiently.

Kyle Bush, Leesville Fire Department fire chief, was glad for the classes.

“It’s good that they can give us classes like this under the PPP,” he said. “We can’t (usually) leave the city limits for training, but NSU is part of city limits now, so (Fort Polk FES) could come off base here to coordinate the training.”

It all comes down to saving lives, Bush said.

“If one of these birds were to come down, something as simple as knowing where the fuel shutoff switch is could be vitally important. Now we know how to shut it down if we are the first ones on the scene,” he said.

Lt. Richard Bartlett, with New Llano Fire Department, agreed with Bush.

“I’m glad we are doing this with Fort Polk, and I think we need to do more parish, state and federal combined training,” he said. “Thanks to the training we had today, I feel we could offer valuable assistance if a chopper goes down.”

It also helps the occupants of the downed aircraft, aid UH-60 pilot Chief Warrant Officer Dan Verdin.

“It gives me peace of mind to know these guys are ready to help, just like my presence gives peace of mind to soldiers when they need to be (medically evacuated),” he said. “First responders are critical, and the more they know about our capabilities the better able they are to respond in a time of need.”

Training like this is a smart way to cover many bases, according to Cimini.

“Relationships are everything,” said Cimini. “Nobody can afford to staff and equip for every (conceivable) emergency, but we can pool our resources to fill the voids and train together to build teamwork.”