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Rescue 101: State's chopper team trains with local agencies

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

A Black Hawk helicopter circled over the Waccamaw River Sunday morning as three swimmers flailed in the dark water below.

As a rescue swimmer was lowered from the military aircraft to offer aid, the small crowd that gathered at the Reserve Harbor Marina to watch the spectacle stood riveted.

Meanwhile, boats from the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office kept traffic on the river at a distance and Midway Fire and Rescue was on hand to provide medical aid once the victims were retrieved.

It was all part of a quarterly training exercise for the S.C. Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team, a group formed about a year and a half ago to assist local agencies with water rescues. It is one of only two such organizations in the nation.

“We’re 911 for the fire departments and the sheriff’s departments,” said Dan McManus, assistant state fire marshal and commander for the training session. “They call us if they can’t make a rescue safely.”

Though the team has been put on standby six times, it has never been called into action.

The team is automatically activated in a disaster, but rescue and law enforcement agencies can call on the team at any time if there’s a need. That would primarily occur in situations where a large number of people need rescue at once, such as during severe flooding, or if a party boat sank.

McManus said the team doesn’t “take over for the Coast Guard, but they have one helicopter to cover the entire state, from Savannah to the Outer Banks.”

The team helps fill in the gaps.

The need for such a group was realized after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when helicopters were called in to rescue flood victims from rooftops. Training was scheduled on the Waccamaw because its waters are similar in speed, color and consistency to flood waters, McManus said.

Training for the team takes place in a different location every quarter.

The training this weekend was the first opportunity local rescue officials had to see the team in action.

“It was interesting,” said Bob Beebe, a spokesman for Midway.

“It’s all about being prepared for the worst case scenario, and that’s what the team does. They’re a great asset to the public.”

It would take about 30 minutes for the team to arrive on Waccamaw Neck, Beebe said.

For the firefighters who assisted with the exercise, it was also a valuable experience.

“We as a fire department leaned a lot about what they do and how we can better help them, so when they do come to help us, it won’t be a new thing; we’ll already be in the mindset of ‘this is what they need us to do,’ ” Beebe said.

The support of local rescuers and law enforcement is invaluable in allowing the team to operate, McManus said, so it’s important that local agencies have the chance to participate in training.

The team used two Black Hawks for the training exercise, which ran from around 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

It also included 16 rescue swimmers and 11 pilots and crew chiefs from the Army National Guard Aviation Unit based near Columbia, in addition to command staff and logistics specialists.

Along with the National Guard and state fire marshal’s office, the rescue team includes participants from the State Urban Search and Rescue Task Force and the state Emergency Management Division.

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