CFS Press

Management of Air Assents During Major Disasters

by Nancy J. Rigg

I got a call from the U.S. Coast Guard informing me that they were sending a couple of extra helicopters. I asked who's controlling the air space? Somebody needs to do this, because we have a lot of inbound military aircraft. All of the sudden, cutting through the clouds at about 500-feet above ground level is a Cessna airplane, and I'm thinking this is the reason we've got to control our air space. This guy's going to bump into one of our rescue helicopters and somebody's going to get hurt."

Tim Gallagher

Director, Texas Task Force One

Swiftwater Rescue Strike Teams


Tropical Storm Allison, the first named storm in the 2001 hurricane season, was an intense and extremely persistent storm that hit the coast of Texas on June 4th and finally dissipated two weeks later after rampaging through ten states from Texas to New England. Although there was damage and loss of life all along the storm's path, nowhere was harder hit than Houston. According to the National Weather Service, Allison was "the flood of record for the Houston Metropolitan Area," dumping nearly 40-inches of rain, including at least 26 inches in one intense 10-hour time period starting Friday night, June 8th.

Bayous—cement-lined and natural stream channels—quickly filled to capacity and overflowed, sending floodwaters cascading through Houston neighborhoods and into key downtown businesses. Streets and freeways turned into rivers, instantly stranding motorists and impeding the ability of emergency responders to get anywhere quickly, if at all.

Land and cellular phone service was severely disrupted, but people who could get through swamped the city's 9-1-1 system with non-stop calls for rescue and evacuation. During the height of the storm, Houston police and fire radios crashed when major public safety answering points were flooded out. Citizens, who awoke and found themselves in pitch darkness, without power or phone service, confronting floodwaters that were rising at an alarming rate, took refuge anywhere that offered "higher ground", from roofs to attics to the tops of big rigs and other vehicles.

In the state of Texas, we try to anticipate major events in order to pre-stage assets that we will need," said Jack Colley, Assistant State Coordinator for Emergency Management for the State of Texas Department of Public Safety. Swiftwater Rescue Strike Teams, which serve under Texas Task Force One, were already on standby when Allison parked over Houston and unleashed torrential amounts of rain. "Flooding from this storm happened in a very short period of time, affecting 28 counties," Colley said. "The devastation was tremendous."


U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Capt. Donald Thompson, Commander of Group Galveston, was awakened at 2:00 in the morning on June 9th. "We often work one-on-one with local police and rescue agencies that need our assistance," Thompson recalled. "Our command cadres indicated that calls were starting to come in from different coordination centers. I looked outside, saw that my own street was flooding, and knew we were in for an ordeal."

Thompson sent Coast Guard liaisons to the Galveston and Harris County Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) where, under disaster planning procedures, requests for both ground and air resources would be triaged and coordinated with local authorities. "With widespread communications disruptions, however, we had to do independent triage," Thomspon said, "because we couldn't get through to local emergency coordinators."

By first light, three HH-65A "Dolphin" helicopters (Eurocopter Dauphins) from Air Station Houston were responding to rescue calls, coordinated through Group Galveston. "We waited until just before dawn to launch the helicopters," Thompson said. "Because we were sending our pilots into the city, the obstacles they were going to encounter, including trees and power lines, made it too hazardous to send them in before they could operate under visual flight rules."

Coast Guard units handled an array of dramatic rescue and medical calls. Memorable incidents included hoisting ten people, who had clung to one another all night, off the top of an ambulance that was stuck in the midst of rushing water near a highway overpass. And quadriplegic man on a ventilator had to be evacuated from his flooded home by a rescue swimmer, who clipped to the Stokes litter and continued manually ventilating the patient while hoisting him into the helicopter to transport him to the hospital.

Locating addresses was a major problem, compounded by disruptions in communications, submerged street signs, visual markers that were lakes instead of cul-de-sacs, and a lack of precise longitude and latitude information. "There were some creative petty officers in the command post who got on the Internet and found a site that converted street addresses into longitude and latitude," Thompson said, "so we were finally able to guide the aircraft into the neighborhoods. Looking back, it was somewhat comical being given street addresses for each mission."

Triaging calls was also a challenge. "Our pilots were flying into areas where people everywhere were waving at them," Thompson explained. "At first we were trying to help anybody that needed assistance, but when the hospital system started shutting down, we had to triage calls based on the greatest need for the limited aircraft that were available." Six of Houston's 29 hospitals, including one of two level-1 trauma centers, were lost due to flooding and power outages, causing the most massive medical evacuation in the city's history.

The Houston Police Department's Helicopter Patrol Division had only a "skeleton crew" on duty Friday night when the main fury of the storm hit, according to Sgt. C. E. Weldon. "The storm caught everyone by surprise," he said. Although it was still raining hard on Saturday morning, "We just started flying to try to do what we could to help," Weldon said.

The department flies Schweizer 333s, Schweizer 300s, and MD-500Es. Initially Weldon put three helicopters into the air, but when additional crews came on board, between five and six ships were airborne, doing everything from reconnaissance to guiding fire and police rescue boats into flooded areas to rescue people who were stranded.

Because the police dispatch center had been flooded out, including the backup system, "Essentially, we had to freelance," Weldon explained. With police and fire radios down, they used an old "back channel" to communicate air-to-air and ground-to-air, but none of the other agencies could communicate with them. "It was VFR (visual flight rules) only," Weldon added, "because there wasn't anything else we could do."

In the 24-hour period starting Saturday morning and running overnight, during which time we normally would have flown 18 flight hours, we logged in excess of 44 flight hours, using six of our eight aircraft," Houston Police Helicopter Patrol Division Lt. John King said. "We have weather minimums, but within these parameters we leave it to the discretion of the pilots in command. When the chips are down, you come closer to crowding the line in an attempt to help your fellow officers and citizens."

At times, the winds were gusting to over 30-knots and there were thunderstorms that we had to fly around," Sgt. Weldon added. "We would not have been flying unless it was absolutely necessary,"


Even as aircrews from Air Station Houston and HPD were jumping from call to call, additional resources from state and federal agencies were beginning to arrive in Houston, including extra Coast Guard helicopters and boats and the State of Texas Swiftwater Rescue Strike Teams, who deployed with Texas Army National Guard Helicopters. Tim Gallagher, director of Texas Task Force One (TX-TF1), was in charge of state search and rescue operations.

This was the first time that we deployed our new rapid response Swiftwater Rescue Strike Teams," Gallagher said. "One week before Allison hit, we hosted our first operational readiness exercise for swiftwater and flood rescue, training with Texas Army National Guard helicopter aircrews in preparation for the hurricane season."

A total of 13 TX-TF1 swiftwater rescue squads were deployed to Houston, working in conjunction with the Houston Fire Department. Three helicopter-certified swiftwater rescue teams from Austin/Travis County EMS worked with National Guard Blackhawk aircrews to handle the most life-threatening technical swiftwater rescues requiring air support. And one National Guard Chinook helicopter was utilized to transport ground based swiftwater rescue squads, along with their boats and other gear, deep into the flood zone.

The National Guard was eager to help us," said Michael Benavides, Acting Special Operations Commander for Austin/Travis County EMS, who was serving on one of the swiftwater rescue strike teams, "but because they don't have a specific background or experience performing swiftwater rescue operations from a helicopter platform, allowing our helicopter-certified swiftwater rescuers to serve as crew chiefs and rescuers worked well."

With so many helicopters in the air, air asset management was a challenge. "There were concerns expressed by our aircrews warning us that there were possible problems with this issue," said USCG Capt. Thompson.

Communications overall was very difficult," Benavides said, "both on the ground and in the air, making the management of air operations a problem. We had Coast Guard helicopters, National Guard helicopters, Houston Police Department helicopters, life flight and news helicopters in the air and no one seemed to be managing all the assets, particularly for search and rescue operations."

I got a call from the U.S. Coast Guard informing me that they were sending a couple of extra helicopters," said Tim Gallagher. "I asked who's controlling the air space? Somebody needs to do this, because we have a lot of inbound military aircraft. All of the sudden, cutting through the clouds at about 500-feet above ground level is a Cessna airplane, and I'm thinking this is the reason we've got to control our air space. This guy's going to bump into one of our rescue helicopters and somebody's going to get hurt."

On a short-term basis, Gallagher offered to take control of the air space. He called the Houston Police Department and got hold of Sgt. C. E. Weldon. "I explained that we've got a lot of military aircraft inbound right now. Here's the frequency we're operating on. We need to get the airspace above Houston restricted. He said it's a good idea and he would take care of it right then."

Air operations seemed to be running more smoothly until Gallagher got a call from a Major in the National Guard asking where one of his Blackhawks was. "I told him that we had sent that aircraft on a specific rescue mission, but we hadn't heard back from them yet. I was later informed that someone had diverted this helicopter to transport a pediatric patient to Austin."

Texas Swiftwater Rescue Strike Team helicopter rescuer, Greg Hall, was on the Blackhawk rigging for swiftwater rescue operations, when he found himself deposited on a landing pad at Hermann Hospital as the pediatric patient was loaded into the helicopter. Hall conceded that evacuation of the flooded Hermann Hospital was an important mission, "but then I realized that they had commandeered one of the helicopters that was supposed to be dedicated to swiftwater rescue operations," he said. Wearing his wetsuit, helmet, and other swiftwater rescue gear, and with no way to communicate back to the command post, Hall found himself stranded amid a sea of patients and hospital staff members needing to be evacuated, unable to perform the mission he had been assigned to.

With so much rain, the usually placid Houston bayous had been transformed into raging rivers. An urgent water rescue call came into the HPD Helicopter unit. "A couple of officers reported that they were trying to rescue some people in Buffalo Bayou when they all got caught up in the water and washed downstream," HPD Lt. John King said. "Everybody was able to catch hold of the treetops, but the ground units couldn't see anyone. Being cold and with the rushing water all around them, they couldn't hold on for long, so we used a helicopter unit to hover over the area and act as a surveillance platform to guide police dive team boats in to get them."

Although this was eventually a "successful rescue" by boat, the danger was compounded by a lack of swiftwater rescue training and equipment. "Because the helicopter crew could tell that time was critical with the water and energy those people needed to hang onto the trees, they were on the verge of trying to use their skids to do the rescue, since we have no hoist capability," King said.

In another incident, three college students found themselves stranded on top of their vehicle in the torrent. Again, heroic police officers, with good intentions but lacking swiftwater rescue training and equipment, scrambled to save the three young men using ropes and sheer determination. Two of the three were rescued, but one man was swept to his death.

There are very few rescuers nationwide who are trained to do helicopter swiftwater rescues," Greg Hall said. "I felt horrible when I later found out that 23 people in Harris County, 22 of them in the City of Houston, died for lack of swiftwater rescue during Tropical Storm Allison. I'm not clear on the timeframe of all the deaths, but Hermann Hospital was being evacuated using helicopters that were supposed to be dedicated to swiftwater rescue operations. Helicopter swiftwater rescue is one of the most dangerous kinds of technical rescues to perform even for those of us who are highly trained, but during Tropical Storm Allison, some of the most serious rescues ended up being performed by anyone who just happened to be around. And some people perished for lack of rescue."


Every disaster offers and opportunity to study lessons learned. "Our overall response was very successful," Jack Colley said, "but we decided to get everyone together afterwards to discuss how we could do it even better next time. Clearly, air asset management was something we needed to come to grips with."

Colley established the Texas Joint Air-Ground Coordination Team, which will undergo training in April 2002. During "catastrophic events only," Colley said that the team will "go in to support, not replace, local efforts during those first 18-hours when it's so critical to coordinate air assets and ground resources." Several agencies will play a prominent role, including representatives from the Texas Task Force One Swiftwater Rescue Strike Teams, the U.S. Coast Guard, Texas Army National Guard, "and other appropriate state agencies that can offer fleets of boats and provide overhead management," Colley said.

For air traffic, Colley noted that "we've secured a dedicated frequency from the FAA for search and rescue so that all agencies involved can automatically communicate. Our whole purpose is to compliment, coordinate, and synchronize our efforts in a more effective way. Understanding that we now have a common frequency for communications is a big win for all of us. Plus we now have a very small organization that will move into place quickly when there's a catastrophic event to coordinate air and ground search and rescue resources until the local jurisdictions can get a handle on everything."

During major floods when lives are on the line, helicopters are a vital resource for search and rescue operations. But pilots and rescuers need proper helicopter swiftwater rescue training and equipment, the ability to communicate with other agencies operating in the air, and the careful management of assets to ensure that calls involving the most dire rescues be routed to dedicated helicopter swiftwater rescue teams.

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