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Region’s officials welcome new ‘copter

Close to 100 people barely fit into the Maryland State Police hangar Wednesday at the St. Mary’s County Regional Airport in the company of a new and bigger rescue helicopter, as they showed up to hear how the quest for better emergency service became a reality.

But if most of the speakers and seated guests were senior law officers and lawmakers, their remarks and commendations generally focused on the pilots, medics and support staff in the room who carry out the job of responding day in and day out to people who need to be quickly delivered to advanced medical care.

The AgustaWestland 139 served as the backdrop behind a podium, where Lt. Walter Kerr of State Police Aviation Command said, “This day has been a long time in the making, ... literally thousands of hours. It’s taken about five years for it to be sitting here. This is your helicopter, in your community.”

Kerr noted the role of state legislators, the county’s commissioners and state employees including members of a department of transportation procurement team in upgrading the fleet, but much of the applause also was directed at Trooper 7’s duty crew that day and all the other people working there who have been trained to fly in and service the new helicopter.

“They are truly ready to fly this new aircraft,” Police Superintendent Col. Marcus Brown said, adding that they continue a legacy of decades of service. “The stories of people rescued and lives saved are endless. Unfortunately, some of our members have given their lives while serving others.”

A fatal crash in 2008 involving a state police helicopter from Prince George’s County occurred amid early discussions of replacing the older fleet, and Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary’s) said Wednesday that some state senators at one point talked of privatizing the system. Members of the House of Delegates, however, were tapped to form a work group chaired by Bohanan, he said, and their project broadened to include input from fire and rescue organizations.

“We were supposed to be in business for one session only,” Bohanan said. “We realized there were some issues we needed to deal with. It is the best system in the world, and we need to support that. This is a worthless asset without the folks on the ground.”

Retired Navy Rear Adm. Steven Eastburg told the audience that the helicopter crew in St. Mary’s once flew one of his sons to a hospital after a snowboarding accident, and Eastburg himself and a pilot were rescued when a plane they were flying over the Chesapeake Bay broke apart and activated their ejection seat parachutes.

On every April 29, Eastburg said, “We express our gratitude to you all for saving our lives.”

Trooper 7’s members also were recognized for their response with helicopter crews from two other locations in Maryland and from Virginia after the fatal shootings last year at the Washington Navy Yard, to assist U.S. Park Police helicopter crews.

“We are one brotherhood and sisterhood because we all have the same mission,” acting U.S. Park Police Chief Robert MacLean said.

Members of the audience included Christopher Rea, an aircraft mechanic assigned to Trooper 7’s quarters in St. Mary’s for the past two months after about five years with other sections of the state police aviation division.

“He’s been doing what it takes to keep this helicopter going,” Kerr said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new equipment, which is expected to have less maintenance issues than its predecessor.

“We hope you become known as the Maytag repairman,” Bohanan later said to Rea, “that this will run smoothly and keep you idled for a good while.”

In the 27 years since the three counties of Southern Maryland received their own Maryland State Police medevac helicopter, initially housed in a hangar at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, the equipment to carry out the mission continues to change.

But the primary task of the airborne crews responding to injured people essentially has remained the same, as the late Dr. R Adams Cowley, the name now associated with a hospital’s shock-trauma center in Baltimore, said during the 1987 ceremony at the base: “It’s to get you to the right people in the shortest period of time.”

The Bell Jet Rangers first deployed at the U.S. Navy’s hangar and at six other stations in the state were all replaced during the early 1990s with a fleet of French-made Aerospatiale Dauphin helicopters, at about the same time the quarters for the tri-county area’s helicopter moved to the St. Mary’s airport in Hollywood, and a disruption in nighttime service was resolved. The Dauphins were more powerful and safer to fly at night, attributes that 20 years later are being bestowed on a new fleet of Italian-made AgustaWestland AW139 helicopters.

“It carries more weight, and it goes a little bit faster,” state police Lt. David Svites said during an interview at the aviation division’s facility at the airport, a couple of weeks before Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony for the helicopter that actually went in service here March 17.

A bigger hangar was secured at the airport more than three years ago in anticipation of the arrival of the newest version of Trooper 7, the designation given to whatever helicopter happens to be in service here at the moment. The state signed a contract in 2012 to buy 10 of the AgustaWestland models for $121.7 million, and they began arriving in February of last year, followed by extensive training for everyone involved. The first full-service mission was carried out last September by Trooper 3’s crew in Frederick, followed by Trooper 4’s staff in Salisbury. The deliveries and training continued, eventually involving the eight pilots and nine medics with Trooper 7.

Svites, a member of the aviation division for 19 years, said the pilots’ training included classes using a simulator in New Jersey followed by classroom and hands-on instruction for the entire section. While his team was training at Trooper 2’s facility at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County, Trooper 2’s crew came to St. Mary’s to handle Southern Maryland’s calls with one of the retiring Dauphin models. As Trooper 2’s crew receives its training, Svites’ team will broaden its response area to the Prince George’s section, and a U.S. Park Police helicopter crew also will serve that area.

Svites said maintenance issues initially prompted the search for the new fleet of helicopters, before the process was expedited in 2008 by a Trooper 2 helicopter crash in a wooded area of a Prince George’s County park that killed four people, including a state police pilot, a flight paramedic, a Waldorf rescue squad volunteer and their patient — a Charles County teenager who had been injured in a traffic accident. Jordan Wells of Waldorf, then 18, survived the crash with serious injuries.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued its probable-cause findings the following year, that the nighttime crash occurred amid a rapid descent to regain visual conditions during the flight from the crash scene to a hospital, complicated by insufficient weather information and air-traffic control assistance. No mechanical issues were cited in the NTSB report.

The new helicopters’ enormous windshield also serves as a monitor.

“Everything’s liquid display,” Svites said. “You don’t have the dials or gauges anymore. It’s like looking at a computer screen.”

The display allows the pilot to read the information when wearing night-vision goggles, which are required when flying over rural areas, the sergeant said.

The new helicopter has room for a second pilot and for two medics to work behind them in the larger patient-care area, where injured people now can be loaded from each side of the aircraft.

“I think it’s more room than some ambulances,” Svites said, and the primary patient carried to the helicopter can be transferred outside the well-lit doorway. “We have a turntable that slides,” the sergeant said. “It just pivots out that door.”

The new helicopter’s promise of better safety and room for a larger flight crew addresses concerns among emergency medical services volunteers that lingered after the fatal crash six years ago, said Chris Shannon, chief of Calvert County’s advanced life-support.

“We had some EMS people that were scared after the crash and hesitant to fly,” Shannon said, and having room for two pilots and two on-board medical crew members lessens the likelihood that a rescue squad member will have to get on board with the patient. “Either way,” he said, “it’s a second set of hands in the back.”

At the same time, he said, “That’s good, and it’s bad. A lot of people enjoy flying.”

Shannon said Southern Maryland likely makes more use of its helicopter, at least on a per capita basis given its comparatively sparse population, than any other region.

“We’re the only region that doesn’t have a trauma center,” he said, as the closest one is the Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly. “We fly people all the time,” he said, “because we don’t have the specialty centers in Southern Maryland.”

Other than the improved access for the fire and rescue volunteers bringing a patient to the helicopter, Svites said there will be few adjustments required from the emergency first responders, other than some changes in the criteria for a suitable landing site. The square-footage requirement has expanded from 100-by-100 feet to 150-by-150 feet.

“We can’t land in loose gravel” or narrower highways, Svites said, but the places where firefighters usually stage themselves during a landing and takeoff thus far have not posed any problems.

“We’ve been landing without any issues at all,” he said. “We haven’t had any [designated landing sites] taken off the list just yet.”

The vast majority, about 85 percent, of Trooper 7’s flights are to take injured people to a shock-trauma center, the sergeant said, and the remainder are to assist police from overhead, including tracking criminal suspects on the run, day and night. The new helicopter has an automatic search mode function, he said, and advanced cameras that can spot rabbits from 2,000 feet above.

Each county’s prosecuting authority must OK the use of the video recordings that the helicopter can collect, the sergeant said.

“It handles pretty nice,” Svites said of the new helicopter. “We’re starting new and learning how the aircraft responds. We certainly have not reached its potential as far as what it can and cannot do.”

Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-St. Mary’s, Charles), whose 28 years in Annapolis coincided with the arrival and evolution of the state’s helicopter program, said it has bipartisan support in the state legislature.

“Your rural areas are made up of more Republicans than Democrats, ... [and] in the rural areas is where you need it the most,” Wood said, noting the crucial time difference between a 20-minute flight to a shock-trauma center in Baltimore or Washington, D.C., as opposed to a 90-minute ambulance ride.

Increased motor vehicle fees were supposed to build up the funds during the past few years to pay for the new helicopters, Wood said, but that money was spent elsewhere, and other sources will have to be found to pay for the fleet.

“That’s nothing new for Annapolis,” he mused, after assuring that the issue will be resolved. “It’s going to be done. These [helicopters] are bigger and better. It’s been a great program.”

The state of Maryland has joined AgustaWestland’s distinguished client list, including the pope.

“This is his principal aircraft that he flies around in,” Svites said. “His is all white, of course.”