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How volunteers in Centre County are preparing for the next water emergency

Helicopter drills help volunteers and PA HART prepare for water emergencies

The Pennsylvania Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team and volunteers with the Centre County Water Rescue Task Force performed a training exercises on Saturday involving a Black Hawk helicopter.
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The Pennsylvania Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team and volunteers with the Centre County Water Rescue Task Force performed a training exercises on Saturday involving a Black Hawk helicopter.

It had been about two hours since somebody passed out earplugs, the thinking being that they would provide at least some degree of protection against the roar of the helicopters that would surely be touching down at any moment in a field outside of the Pleasant Gap Fire Company station.

The natural rush of adrenaline that accompanies important people putting on important-looking uniforms to do important-looking things had long since faded, like if Bruce Wayne strapped himself into the Batman suit and then just hung around the cave for 45-minutes checking email.

“Hurry up and wait” was the expression that was kicked around Saturday morning by a couple of volunteers from the Howard Fire Company, who mostly passed the time chatting and looking uncomfortable in helmets and thick jumpsuits that presumably don’t come with a sleeveless option. It might have been for the best — there was to be no vomiting on the floor of the helicopter, leaving precious few alternatives.

“It’s you barf it’s down your suit or in a bag,” someone warned.

One guy was resting his head against a bag containing the inflatable raft, which was heavy and would eventually require two people to hoist it up onto the encroaching Black Hawk helicopter. Michael Hoy joined the company at Howard three years ago and volunteered for the Centre County Water Rescue Task Force because he wanted to make a difference in the community.

Along with colleagues at Howard and personnel from the Milesburg, Pine Glen and Pleasant Gap fire companies, he’s received training in water rescue awareness, water rescue emergency response, ice rescue, advanced line systems and emergency boat operations. Saturday’s exercise threw in practice loading/unloading gear from a helicopter plus the actual flight.

“Everything we did is all a prerequisite to this, something you have to have in order to fly,” Hoy said.

The buzz of the rotors provided sufficient enough notice that he was on his feet along with everyone else by the time the Black Hawk finally cleared the treeline. Lou Brungard, chief of the Pleasant Gap Fire Company, was among the first to hit the ground along with another crew supporting their own raft and adjoining motor.

Brungard said that the CCWRTF’s efforts started to come into focus after the 2016 flood in Milesburg. Pleasant Gap alone has 14 trained responders and a specialized trailer to support technical rescues involving water.

“The more lifelike you can make drills and exercises the more beneficial it is,” Brungard said.

For instance it might be useful to know that when Black Hawks like the one carrying Hoy and the rest of the Howard team take off, the gusts of wind are very powerful. Brungard and other participants crouched low to the ground and faced the opposite direction as the helicopter lifted into the sky and was gone.

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