Indiana National Guard and South Bend Fire Department team up for helicopter search and rescue team

By Sgt. 1st Class David Bruce | Indiana National Guard | Aug. 2, 2019

Kingsbury, Indiana —

The images of persons in distress atop flooded houses or similar high ground as medics are lowered from a helicopter. It’s a common image that frequently finds itself in newscasts from disaster areas. The rotor wash creating a cacophonous frenzy of sound and waves ripple out in the flood waters as people are extracted from their water-encircled refuge and whisked away to safety.

Members of the Indiana Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team, comprised of helicopter crews and pilots from 38th Combat Aviation Brigade, 38th Infantry Division, Indiana Army National Guard and search and rescue technicians from the South Bend Fire Department, performed helicopter hoist operations at Kingsbury Reserve Training Area near LaPorte, Indiana, July 22 - 23.

The hoist operations involved lowering and recovering personnel from a UH-60 Black Hawk hovering approximately 100 feet from the ground and prepared the team for additional training and certification scheduled for August in South Carolina.

The new HART program, which will be the first in the Midwest, is a partnership between the Indiana National Guard and the South Bend Fire Department. After several years of discussion and anticipation, the program is getting off the ground and scheduled to attend training and FEMA certification in South Carolina in August.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Joshua Wiedeman was exposed to the concept of helicopter search and rescue while flying as a medevac pilot while deployed to Kosovo in 2016.

“It was a neat concept and it planted the seed and when I came back to Indiana after the deployment,” he said. The idea was attempted prior to his involvement but the initiative had stalled. With permission to reinvigorate the program, Weideman contacted Chris Baker, a battalion chief with the South Bend, Indiana Fire Department.

Hurricane Florence provided additional motivation for the establishment. The experience demonstrated the importance of having a trained team that specializes in helicopter search and rescue.

“We wanted to start out with a small group to see how things would work and it made sense financially and practically to start out with a small group. Everybody that’s on the civilian rescuer-side are certified as swift-water rescue technicians. They are also rope rescue technicians and the majority of us are advanced EMT or paramedic,” said Baker.

The Indiana National Guard contribution to the team a small group of three pilots, three hoist operators and two medics. According to Baker, there are six firefighters on the team with the eight soldiers.

““I think this is a mission worth being passionate about,” Weideman said.
“I believe that preforming these types of missions and being part of these mission sets, is part of the reason people join the Army National Guard. When I look at the individuals we have on this team and their passion for this mission set, I think it’s undeniable. The people we took to Hurricane Florence with us came back and said ‘this is what I enlisted for, this is what I’ve been looking for.”

One of the soldiers that volunteered for the Hurricane Florence is Sgt. Todd D. Overbeck.
Overbeck and recently decided to reenlist in no small part due to the HART mission.

“I am just now in the process of signing a reenlistment contract and the HART was 95 percent of my decision to stay versus getting out.”

Overbeck said the mission makes it worth the challenges that being a guardsman presents; balancing Guard life versus civilian life. Overbeck said it was one of those things that makes all this worthwhile, worth doing.

“I think this is something that’s awesome for our unit, I think it’s awesome for the South Bend guys. I think it’s important for soldiers to do something good and not always have to go play war,” said Overbeck.

Hoist operations, arguably the most difficult task for crew chief, entails lowering a person from a helicopter to a point on the ground, overcoming turbulence, terrain, and a host of other variables.

“The pilots can’t see what we’re doing, so we have to articulate it. We describe as (if) painting a picture for them so they understand what’s going on. It’s sometimes difficult to do and speak it and take in all the information you need because you’re watching where the aircraft is, you’re watching what obstacles you have, (and) you’re watching the person on the hoist. When you are the operator of the hoist, you are (the) eyes and ears of what’s going on and you have to relay that to the pilots so they know and can act accordingly,” said Overbeck. “Everybody has to function as a team.”

“We got invited to train with South Carolina, North Carolina and Texas,” said Baker. “Those organizations are the pioneers of HART, with Texas being involved for the past 18 years and North and South Carolina came on board slightly after that. They have a lot of years of experience doing this stuff.”

The goal of the South Carolina training is FEMA certification or “typing”. There are four types; Type 1 is most advanced and has the most resources. Type 4 are usually small teams of about six people and can do some boat rescues, mainly calm water. Type 3 certification adds moving water to Type 4 capability. Type 2 and Type 1 consists of 16 member teams with capabilities to operate day or night in flood or swift water. The FEMA typing system ensures the proper assets are assigned appropriate missions to their capabilities.

“We are excited for the State of Indiana to get this team stood up,” said Baker. “They experience significant floods in the southern part of the state where resources are not as readily available. This will be able to put us down in an area to cover more ground and be a force multiplier.”