Air Rescuers immersed in key training

A rescue team that performs medical treatments in the air – in a helicopter, no less – turning to a local pool for training?

It might seem a bit counterintuitive, but that’s exactly what the St. Lucie County Air Rescue Flight Team did this week at Indian River State College.

“Dunker training,” as trainees and trainers call it, safely simulates an emergency water landing in a helicopter so medical personnel can practice evacuating the downed helicopter and getting up to the surface.

For Rob Schooley, an RN and flight medic, the training was important to go through in order to put into practice what they’ve been taught in the classroom.

St. Lucie Air Rescue frequently flies above bodies of water, be they lakes, rivers or the lagoon. In the event the helicopter were to crash into water, the helicopter would roll belly up, suspending those onboard upside down.

“You can never have too much training,” Schooley said.

Several years ago, a LeeFlight air rescue helicopter went down in the water, according to Schooley, who had spoken with one of the flight members after the incident. Schooley said the flight team had just gone through the dunker training the week before.

“They knew what to do,” Schooley said of the LeeFlight crew. Everyone survived.

While no one on the St. Lucie Air Rescue Flight Team hopes or expects to have a watery landing, preparing for such an event helps take the fear out of the possibility, and arms the crew with the tools for survival.

The training was conducted by the Rescue Company 1, founded by Carlos Tavarez. “It’s our passion,” Tavarez said, adding that saving lives is, of course, serious business.

His company was approached by vendor Air Methods to provide the water training on short notice elsewhere in the state.

The company liked Tavarez’s training and chose them to again provide training, this time for St. Lucie County.

This was the first time St. Lucie’s flight teams have had the opportunity to go through dunker training.

Tavarez got his start with the water egress training (what it’s officially called) after watching another company provide training. “It was the most unsafe thing” he’d ever seen, he said. He knew there was a better, safer way to train flight teams. So he came up with it.

Members of flight teams often need as many as a dozen certificates to be a part of the team. Such certifications include pre-hospital trauma care, nursing trauma, flight nursing, transport nursing, various life support categories and, now, water egress.

For St. Lucie Air Rescue, each flight crew consists of three members – a flight medic, a nurse and a pilot. The team has seven crews, meaning 21 people – men and women – who went through the training.

The training itself was 3 ½ hours, including one hour in the classroom and two in the pool. The flight crew had to wear their flight suits, just as they would in the event of a real-world crash. Part of the training also included deploying their personal flotation devices from the deep end of the IRSC pool.

Schooley said the one thing he was grateful for with the training was being in a heated pool – he knows that the water temperature in the lakes and rivers would be far chillier.

He said the crew was “strongly recommended” to participate in the training and hopes that the training will be offered again on a regular basis, not just for new crew members but also as refreshers for those who have gone through it already.

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