In a joint operation tabbed the first of its kind for Key Peninsula Fire Department personnel, summer and the beginning of boating season were welcomed with a bang last week.
The department hosted a special joint drill exercise June 17 with the U.S. Naval Air Station Whidbey Island Search and Rescue helicopter team.
“Recently there was a meeting for all agencies for boating safety in order to gear up for summer,” explained Anne Nesbit, KPFD’s volunteer Battalion Chief and member of the KPFD water rescue team. “The NAS crew was at that meeting and spoke about its capabilities and what resources it could provide to a rescue operation. Acting on behalf of KPFD’s training department, I approached NAS’ training officer, Lt. Matthew Mangaran, and asked if the NAS crew could do some joint training. Mangaran was more than willing to get our agencies together.”
Back home, after getting the green light from KPFD’s training officer, Battalion Chief Bill Sawaya, Assistant Chief Hal Wolverton and Chief Guy Allen, Nesbit sent an email to Mangaran and the ball started rolling.
An excited group of onlookers gathered at the Longbranch Improvement Club field on the evening of June 17, eagerly awaiting the demonstration. Within minutes the air was thundering with the thump, thump,thump of a MH-60S Knighthawk Navy helicopter.
It hovered over the field, made a few passes, then gently touched down. Crew members disembarked, among them Hospital Corpsman 2nd class Alex Nguyen, who approached and advised the crowd on procedures and safety measures to be followed.
The big bird lifted off, circled the field, then hung in the sky over the field as crewman Aviation Warfare Systems Operator Cory Hedges rapelled down a line a hundred or more feet before being hoisted back into the helicopter.
Fellow crewman Jesse Peterson played the role of an injured person on the field as the chopper moved over him. Hedges rappelled down again, this time disengaging from the line, to examine his simulated patient. He secured Peterson to himself before being hoisted back to the helicopter.
With the Nighthawk back on the ground, the aircraft’s engines stilled. The full crew fielded a spate of questions from those assembled to observe the training exercise.
Everyone then proceeded to KPFD’s Longbranch fire station for a sit down briefing on the operation and the newly established mutual aid relationship with KPFD.
“Never before has the fire department reached out to the Navy for assistance in water rescue and high angle extraction training,” Wolverton said. “The Navy rescue team from Whidbey Island was eager to share its knowledge.”
“The drill went better than I could have hoped,” Nesbit added. “I know you can never go wrong with a helicopter. However, I was overwhelmed with how friendly and natural our two agencies came together. I am hopeful this is the beginning of a relationship with us and NAS as we strive to better serve the needs of our community. The Navy crew members enjoyed themselves, loved our community and citizens, and would love to come back.”
The Navy was grateful for the opportunity to share its capabilities.
“We take pride in assisting local communities throughout the Pacific Northwest,” said Lt. Rob Merin, one of the helicopter’s pilots. “It was a great opportunity to share our capabilities and build a relationship with the agencies on Key Peninsula.”
This was the first time a relationship with the federal government and its resources has been considered a possibility, Nesbit said.
“The idea of mutual aid with the Navy is a new one and holds many exciting possibilities for the future,” she said.
Sawaya, KPFD’s battalion chief, had nothing but praise for the Navy crew that participated in the exercise.
“They are a valuable resource which we can call on,” he said.
“When others won’t or can’t go, they will — and that’s huge.”