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The Time For Helicopters


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The time for helicopters


By James T. McKenna


In recounting the devastation of Louisiana and Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a radio correspondent observed that people don't give a second thought to the sound of a helicopter passing overhead until after a disaster like this. Sadly, that seems to be as true for emergency-management leaders as it is for the general public.


In the stricken areas, we see proof every hour that helicopters are essential tools — often the only ones available — to grasp the scope of a disaster, spot the most distressed victims and bring them rescue or relief. We saw such proof in December after a massive Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 150,000, left millions homeless and obliterated whole communities. We see it every year and in nearly every nation of the world. Despite those lessons, U.S. emergency response leaders have yet to make the integrated and coordinated use of all available helicopters a basic part of disaster-management plans.


Large-scale natural disasters silence regular phones, cell phones and even — as we've seen in New Orleans — police and fire radios. They destroy road and highway networks. They shut down airfields and maritime ports. These are the things on which emergency-response and disaster-management plans are built — which might be why responses to major disasters so often seem slow and disjointed.


In such circumstances, what is needed is something that can quickly survey the damage, identify what most needs fixing or rescue and land (or hover) right at the scene to effect immediate relief and convey information on the situation — independent of road or airport conditions. In other words, you need helicopters.


Helicopters too often are an impromptu and overwhelmed part of emergency-response plans. We've seen U.S. Coast Guard, Army and National Guard choppers in the stricken areas. But there were too few of them right from the start.


Two things are needed after this and any similar disaster: more helicopters and a plan for using them.


The sad thing is that plenty of helicopters are available, but responders don't know that and, therefore, don't use them. The Gulf Coast, for instance, has scores of helicopters that are used to ferry crews to and from offshore oil and gas rigs.


Commercial and private helicopter operators who are able to move their aircraft out of the path of destruction, as they do when a hurricane bears down, can quickly return them to the area. Those aircraft lost to an earthquake or tsunami can be replaced by nearby helicopters. In Katrina's wake, for instance, major helicopter manufacturers and operators moved aircraft from neighboring states into Louisiana to help relief efforts. Not all can be used for rescue, but those aircraft can carry food, water and critically needed medical aid to those in need. Military and government helicopters can be, and typically are, supplemented by scores of private and commercial copters.


But rarely is that done by design. Only on a very limited scope, such as in New York after the 9/11 attacks, have federal disaster managers integrated private helicopters into their response plans. Most of the time, private helicopters still are volunteered by their owners on an ad hoc basis. Private and commercial helicopter owners put their own people and aircraft at risk with no guarantee (and little thought) of reimbursement.


Katrina should be the last time we tolerate this. State and local governments and the Homeland Security Department must nail down what aircraft and crews are available and how they can help after a disaster. Do background checks on the crews if necessary; deputize them if we must. Ensure that they and their aircraft are covered by federal insurance and fuel programs as long as they aid in relief. But do not allow them to go unused while thousands suffer too much for too long.


James T. McKenna is editor-in-chief of Rotor & Wing, a monthly magazine that covers the international helicopter industry.

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