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Public safety: Large scale disaster drill unites civilian and military units

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Public and private emergency services in Georgetown and Horry counties will conduct a large scale disaster drill in a joint exercise with military units next month. Operation Coastal Response will involve dozens of local and state agencies. The joint military exercise, Palmetto Thunder, will involve hundreds of troops in emergency response training that will include construction of a bridge to Sandy Island.

Among the most noticeable aspects of the drill, planned for Feb. 1, will be the state helicopter rescue team that will fly a pair of Black Hawk helicopters from Waccamaw Middle School for training exercises on the Waccamaw River.

“We’re going to be pulling everybody together,” said Cindy Grace, the Emergency Management coordinator for Georgetown County. “We’re making sure that our plans are working.”

The project originated with a training exercise mandated for the Myrtle Beach airport. The Horry County Emergency Management Office got involved and they recruited their colleagues in Georgetown County, Grace said. She and Sam Hodge, the county Emergency Management director, have been working on the project since last summer.

The military was invited to bring its Palmetto Thunder operation into the scenario.

“We want to make sure we can communicate,” Grace said. “We’re testing our equipment. We’re testing our personnel.”

The S.C. Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team likes to keep its training operations low-key. But with a pair of Black Hawk helicopters running continuous missions for five and a half hours from the ballfield at Waccamaw Middle School, that might not be possible.

The 42-member team will fly into the school the night before the exercise after a day of training at Bucksport, where the headquarters for Operation Coastal Response will be set up. They’ll spend the night in the gym, then start training at 9 a.m.

From 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., “there should always be an aircraft in the air,” said Chief Warrant Officer Sean Reynolds, one of the team’s pilots. “We will minimize the noise as much as possible.”

The flight path will take the Black Hawks, part of the S.C. Army National Guard Aviation Unit, around the Reserve Club and other portions of Willbrook Plantation. But they will be flying low, Reynolds said.

The rescue team was formed in 2009 after Hurricane Katrina highlighted the need for helicopters to be able to rescue flood victims. “We are an all-hazard response,” said Dan McManus, the assistant state fire marshal and a member of the team.

He likens the team to a 911 responder for emergency services. It has been placed on standby nine times in four years and flown three rescue missions. It conducted training in the Waccamaw River in July 2010. The river’s current provides a good simulation for floodwaters.

“We like coming to the coast in January,” McManus said. “Although the water’s cold, it’s good for training.”

It’s a time when the operation won’t interfere with tourists and boat traffic on the river.

The 30 rescue swimmers training “will be approaching hypothermia every time they complete an event,” Reynolds said. They will warm up in the school media center then head back to the river.

The Georgetown County School Board got a briefing on the helicopter rescue exercise this week. That prompted a question from Board Member Richard Kerr: “Is it possible to watch?”

“We try to keep this as low-key as possible,” Reynolds said. “If we advertise it too much, there will be so many people at the event.”

But he acknowledged that the Black Hawks do draw a crowd. During down-time from the training missions, the team members try to offer tours of the aircraft and explain the unit’s mission, Reynolds said.

That was good news to Alan Pritchard, the media specialist at Waccamaw High who is advisor to WASA, the Waccamaw Association of Space and Aviation.

“We’d like to be there, of course,” he said.

Grace, the county Emergency Management coordinator, said the public will have an opportunity to watch some of the exercises. Horry County has been recruiting volunteer “victims” for an airplane crash at Myrtle Beach.

“We know folks will show up everywhere we’re having exercises,” Grace said.

Organizers will make sure the public realizes it’s only a drill. “Safety will be important,” she said.

Operation Coastal Response will also involve Midway and Murrells Inlet-Garden City fire and rescue, the sheriff’s office, public works, schools, hospitals and non-profits.

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