LINVILLE — Several area emergency services organizations met on Aug. 22 to discuss two recent helicopter rescues at Grandfather Mountain.
Both instances required responses from the North Carolina Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team, which prevented emergency responders from performing risky and time-consuming high-angle rescues.
The first rescue took place on May 26, after a man injured his ankle on MacRae Peak. What would have been a seven-hour operation turned into a 30-minute rescue, officials said.
The next incident, on June 5, which took place in the Attic Window area of the mountain, would have taken more than six hours as well, they said.
Another hiker was injured while hiking on Profile Trail on Aug. 14, requiring a manual carryout that took six hours.
Watauga County Fire Marshal Taylor Marsh said the instances were the first times in recent memory that NCHART had to be called in to assist with rescues on Grandfather Mountain.
“We’ve never really had to use a helicopter to rescue somebody off the mountain, but we ended up using it twice within a month,” Marsh said.
Taylor said the agencies involved in the brief meeting wanted to come together to discuss the unusual incidents and see how rescues could be improved in the future.
“We talked about communications quite a bit,” Marsh said, “because all the different agencies operate on different radio channels, and communications is probably always the biggest thing you’re going to run into in an event like that.”
Attendees also discussed criteria for determining when a helicopter rescue is necessary and when someone can be walked out. Using resources more often does not affect their continued use in the future, Marsh added, but when resources are requested they need to meet the correct criteria.
“It is a very expensive resource, so we have to be careful about the situations we request it,” Marsh said, noting that NCHART was used twice within a month with no issue because the situations met the criteria.
The agencies involved in the Aug. 22 meeting were Avery County Emergency Management, Watauga County Emergency Management, Grandfather Mountain staff, N.C. State Parks staff and N.C. Emergency Management.
NC HART is a joint military-civilian program that partners aircraft and aircrews from the North Carolina National Guard and North Carolina State Highway Patrol with rescue technicians employed by fire departments and rescue squads from across the state. North Carolina Emergency Management provides a portion of the funding, along with training and program management.
Local first responders can request assistance from NC HART when needed for specialized air rescues. In the past, NC HART has successfully rescued people from remote mountain locations, swollen rivers and streams and from major floods caused by hurricanes and tropical storms.
The N.C. Department of Public Safety recently announced the acquisition of two Bell 407 helicopters by the N.C. State Highway Patrol, bringing the total number of participating NC HART aircraft to eight.
For many years, DPS said, NC HART has operated as three programs within one, with a Raleigh-based Highway Patrol helicopter serving eastern North Carolina, National Guard UH-72 Lakota helicopters based at RDU Airport serving the central part of the state and Salisbury-based National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters serving western counties.
“The new aircraft will allow us to soon provide rescue services from our western hangar,” said Sgt. Mat Tribula, chief pilot for the Highway Patrol, in a statement. The Highway Patrol now has two Raleigh-based Bell 407s and one based in Salisbury where it will serve law enforcement and rescue needs in Western North Carolina. With the new aircraft, Tribula said the patrol expects to have at least two helicopters and aircrews available to respond after large-scale storms like hurricanes.
The announcement also stated rescue technicians are now being cross-trained on different aircraft.
“Cross-training will provide more flexibility when assigning resources and personnel to rescue missions while increasing the proficiency of our crews and NC HART’s overall response capacity,” said N.C. Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry in a statement.