Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Coast Guard Flyers Train with San Francisco Mariners

Coast Guard pilots typically conduct rescue hoist training with Coast Guard boat crews, but Maritime Industry Rescue Training (MIRT) allows for a more true-to-life experience. Jonathan Mendes, the general manager of Starlight Marine Service, says the MIRT is especially important to crews that work offshore, where medical treatment isn’t readily available. Photo by Pamela Manns.

May 2010

By Petty Officer 3rd Class Pamela Manns

On a calm spring day in the San Francisco Bay, the Starlight Tug Millennium Falcon welcomes a Coast Guard rescue swimmer onto its aft deck. The swimmer is lowered from an orange Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter, which hovers noisily overhead. The swimmer provides instructions to the tug crew while the helicopter’s flight mechanic hangs out the open chopper door. When ready, the mechanic lowers an empty stokes litter, a long stretcher used for evacuating patients, with 105- foot trail line weighted with a small beanbag to a tug crewmember on deck. The crewmember grabs the beanbag, handles the line, and pulls the litter toward the tug. Once on deck, the litter sits for a moment and then is hoisted back to the helicopter above, and they repeat the drill.

The tug and helicopter crew and swimmer are participating in Maritime Industry Rescue Training (MIRT), an ongoing training program that partners Coast Guard aviators with the maritime industry.

MIRT was initiated by the commanding officer of Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco, Cmdr. Samuel Creech, in November 2009, and is the first training program that brings together Coast Guard aircrews and professional mariners. The goal is to simulate an emergency situation and prepare mariners in the event they have to hoist an injured patient from deck to chopper.

The Coast Guard has had a long history with the maritime industry, as a regulatory and rescue agency. Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles, Washington, for example, has conducted periodic hoist training with tugs in the past. However, this is the first ongoing training program in which Coast Guard aviators work with the mariners to prepare them for a helicopter medical evacuation scenario.

Capt. Patrick Maguire, chief of prevention for the Eleventh Coast Guard District in Alameda, California, reached out to maritime industry representatives with the idea of conducting hoist training and received an overwhelming response.

“We put the idea out to the maritime industry and everybody has come back to us wanting to participate,” says Maguire.

The first MIRT evolution got off the ground with a Starlight tug in January 2010, but April, 1, 2010, was the first training exercise that involved two helicopters from the air station. Together the crews put in more than two hours of training and practiced 14 hoists. Crews got an opportunity to handle a stokes litter and rescue basket and worked with the deployed rescue swimmer.

“It was great. The highlight of my year,” says Capt. Dan Morrison, a tugboat captain and the safety observer for the evolution.

“I have never been that close to a running helicopter,” Morrison says. “Seeing that rescue swimmer come down… oh man, it was great.”

Morrison, a seasoned 30-year veteran in the industry, says the training exercise was invaluable and hopes that the entire Starlight tug crew has an opportunity to receive the hands on experience.

Starlight Marine Service is the Alameda-based subsidiary of Harley Marine Services, which has tugs and barges on both coasts. Jonathan Mendes, the general manager of Starlight, said that he wants to keep the training going.

The MIRT is especially important to crews that work offshore, where medical treatment isn’t readily available, says Mendes.

“We want our crew to be ready if a medevac is necessary,” he says.

Mendes is specifically thinking of crewmembers that work in the dangerous waters of the Pacific Northwest, and he says he hopes to bring crews from Alaska and Southern California to participate in MIRT.

“The relationship with mariners is an important one,” says Maguire, “MIRT is an opportunity to connect mariners with aviators, and allow them to work together in a controlled environment. It reduces risk in the event of a real emergency.”

Air station commander Creech emphasizes the importance of working together and says, “The first time a professional mariner sees the Coast Guard shouldn’t be when they need us.”

Creech received his inspiration for the training program from senior Coast Guard leadership that challenged the aviation community to engage with the maritime industry more. Creech designated pilot Lt. David Chapman as Air Station San Francisco’s MIRT coordinator.

Chapman says about the training, “It is beneficial to the pilots as well. It gives us a new platform to practice hoists.”

Coast Guard pilots typically conduct their hoist training with Coast Guard boat crews, and Chapman says the training can get redundant. MIRT allows for a more true-to-life experience.

“We do a lot of medevacs from tankers and container ships, and those situations are always high stress because of the live person in the rescue basket. Most of the professional mariners have not been trained in hoist operations, and we have to explain the procedure over the radio. However, with MIRT we can practice in a controlled environment and lower a swimmer to help provide some one-on-one training. It is really a win-win program.”

Chapman says, “We are willing to work with maritime companies. Just yesterday we conducted 5 training hoists with a container ship 30 miles offshore, and they had to call us up on a satellite phone and change the meeting place. We are willing to work around schedules because the training is that important.”

Maguire, Creech, and Chapman all hope to the see the program grow, and mariners such as Capt. Morrison have been equally as eager to continue the training.

“I want to keep doing it, and I want all of our crews to keep doing it. It is better to see the helicopter on this end than when we are doing a rescue,” said Morrison.

Air Station San Francisco has become the test bed for the program, and the early success has lead to an opportunist outlook from both mariners and Coast Guardsmen.

Petty Officer 3rd Pamela Manns has been serving as a Coast Guard public affairs specialist in San Francisco, for two years and has been in the Coast Guard for four years. Her service has taken her throughout the country including the outer banks of North Carolina, Northern California, Seattle, Haiti and the Arctic.