Monroe County Sheriff’s Office TraumaStar flies S76A++

Joint MCSO/County Fire Rescue unit serves Florida Keys providing HEMS and airborne law enforcement protection.

By Brent Holman
ATP/CFI/Helo. Bell 206L, Airbus A320

TraumaStar routinely uses the bridges that connect the islands of the Florida Keys as landing zones to pick up patients for transport to the Ryder Trauma Center in Miami.

Early in the morning of Jun 9, 2009 a senior firefighter with Monroe County in the Florida Keys had just traversed the northern span of Seven Mile Bridge, which links some of the islands of the Lower Keys.

Descending on the bridge’s ramp, he noticed a father and his 3 children waiting near the side of the road to cross. The dad had the 2 smaller children clutched tightly—the older boy held his fishing pole with eyes focused on Florida Bay on the other side of the road as they waited for traffic to clear so that they could cross.

Minutes later and still in his car, the firefighter heard the pediatric trauma alert go out. The location? Just north of the Seven Mile Bridge. Recollecting the earlier scene, his blood chilled. At that same time the trauma alert echoed through the radio at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) TraumaStar hangar at MTH (Marathon FL).

The crew shift was just changing—pilots and medics were coming on duty and others going home. A pedestrian/truck accident, a child victim—all these thoughts crossed the mind of the responders as they readied the Sikorsky S76 for launch.

One flight medic, scheduled to go off duty, thought an extra set of hands could be helpful in a serious pediatric case and joined the crew as the twin-turbine helicopter spooled, readying for launch.

Quickly on the scene, para­medics from Marathon Fire Rescue worked to stabilize the 10-year old boy, who had been hit by a truck as he darted across the highway. He had been hit after looking to his left but not his right and dashing in front of an oncoming delivery truck traveling at the speed limit and whose driver had no time to react.

The responding Monroe County TraumaStar S76 landed in the middle of the Seven Mile Bridge and its medics helped the ground responders stabilize the boy for transport. Minutes later the big Sikorsky lifted off the bridge, its medical crew working hard to save a young life.

Turning northbound and climbing to altitude, TraumaStar Pilot Dennis Nix made a direct course for the Miami Children’s Hospital, accelerating the S76 to its high cruise speed and closing the distance as fast as possible.

Fifty-eight minutes after the accident, the boy was in the operating room in metropolitan Miami, tended to by some of the best pediatric health-care professionals in the country. He survived—and has since walked out of the hospital, still working to recover from his near-fatal accident—but on Jun 9, that crew and a helicopter made all the difference in one boy’s life.

Airborne law enforcement in the Florida Keys

Undersheriff Rick Ramsay is responsible for oversight of the Aviation Division, which was formed in the early 1990s around a Cessna 404 used for prisoner transport.

TraumaStar team on the ramp at MTH (Marathon FL). Monroe County Sheriff’s Office provides pilots and maintenance technicians for the Trauma­Star joint venture, while Monroe County Fire Rescue supplies flight medics and flight nurses.

Military surplus helicopters were added in 1996, primarily for law enforcement work, and included a Bell OH58 and 2 UH1s, one of which served as a platform for the SWAT team. As late as 2000 “there were no HEMS providers fully serving the Keys,” according to Ramsay.

Then-Sheriff Richard Roth “was concerned with our citizens dying” because they could not be transported to facilities that could handle serious trauma cases, Ramsay continues. Seeing the need to provide service to the entirety of Monroe County—a chain of islands that spans 113 miles from the southern mainland of Florida, southwest to Key West and the Dry Tortugas—Roth and his team set out to acquire a medevac helicopter, forming a joint venture with Monroe County Fire Rescue.

Using $326,000 in funds seized from drug smugglers, MCSO purchased a 1967 UH1 outfitted for HEMS missions, and TraumaStar was launched. The Huey served the Keys well, but aging aircraft issues eventually made it clear that the cost of maintenance and needed upgrades would soon exceed the aircraft’s value, and a committee was formed to find a suitable replacement.

Primary factors in selecting a new helicopter were speed (due to the distances from the islands to hospitals in Miami), range (to cover the planned flights without refueling), and the ability to carry 2 trauma patients.

The committee considered most of the twin-engine medium to heavy airframes available and ultimately chose the Sikorsky S76 as best suited to the mission envisioned by MCSO and Fire Rescue. An S76 was purchased in 2006.

Today’s Air Unit

MCSO Dir of Aviation Brooks Bateman—a sworn police officer and helicopter pilot—leads the team at the Sheriff’s Aviation Division. Bateman joined MCSO last year after serving the county as a reserve deputy while flying Douglas DC8s and DC9s for Airborne Express.

Previous law enforcement flying experience with US Customs & Border Protection gave Bateman a well-rounded background that has helped move the MCSO aviation program forward. “Safety and standardization are my first priorities,” says Bateman.

Sheriff Robert Peryam is responsible for MCSO’s 589 officers and staff. Monroe County is made up of a string of islands running 113 miles from the southern tip of mainland Florida to Key West.

Since assuming leadership of the program, he has begun to organize safety and standardization committees that include pilot staff members, medics and maintenance technicians. Bateman notes, “When it comes to safety of the helicopter, I want everyone to participate.” S76 Pilot Alice Butler is the safety coordinator for Trauma­Star.

She reports, “We are developing a full-program safety system that will provide protocols for all our operations from fueling to landing zone marshalling.” One of the safety initiatives now in place is the utilization of more than 40 preplanned designated landing zones (LZs) at strategic locations all along the string of islands that make up the Florida Keys.

The LZs, which are along US Highway 1, include ball fields, airstrips and the many bridges that connect the Keys. By designating specific sites as LZs, TraumaStar crews can train to the idiosyncrasies and hazards of each, and involve responders on the ground in managing the special needs for each site.


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