NEWS | Dec. 1, 2020

HART partnership cited as career highlight for participants

By Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti JFHQ Public Affairs

CHESTERFIELD, Va. — For nearly a decade, Virginia National Guard flight crews have worked alongside technicians from the Chesterfield County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Scuba Rescue Team. Over those many years, the two organizations created, built and grew Virginia’s Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team, or HART. Since the program’s inception in 2011, the HART has deployed for hurricane response, flown countless hours over the waterways and landscapes of Virginia and now boasts approximately 20 trained technicians. 

“It’s one of the highlights of my career,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Shane Leipertz, one of the HART’s helicopter pilots. “It’s very, very rewarding to see how far the program has come.” 

The HART provides rotary wing aviation rescue hoist capabilities and can conduct aerial rescue evacuation in situations with a potential loss of life, limb or eyesight or significant property damage. Virginia’s aviators bring the capabilities of their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to the fight, while Chesterfield brings first responders with swift-water rescue training and other life-saving proficiencies. 

When the partnership between Chesterfield and the VNG first started, there was a lot to learn. The Virginians looked to other states with already-established HARTs, like South Carolina, to gain a better idea of how to make the program work in Virginia. 

“Going back to the first couple of years, we didn’t have any equipment, we didn’t have any gear, we didn’t have anything,” said Lt. Graham Lathrop, training officer for Chesterfield Fire & EMS and long-time member of the HART. “In a sense, we were making things work as we went.” 

Now, everything the HART does is standardized and the precise and careful sequence followed by HART members during hoist operations has lovingly been dubbed “The Dance.” 

“Being a standardization instructor pilot, this HART training is all about safety and standards,” Leipertz explained. 

This year saw the addition of eight new technicians to the HART. These new members, according to Lathrop, hit the ground running at a pace far faster than the original HART team members. 

“It’s so well-established and it’s so well-refined,” said Lathrop. “What took us two years to do, they’re already into it two drills in, so the pace of this program has sped up so much, it’s amazing.” 

Because the HART’s mission is so dangerous, a large part of what they do is train. 

“This is probably the most dangerous thing that could possibly be done,” Lathrop said. “It’s the highest risk, lowest frequency event there is, and so you’ve got to focus on everything you can as often as you can.” 

Mitigating risk for the HART comes down to standardized procedures, mutual trust and team cohesion, all of which are built and sustained through routine training intervals, like the one conducted in November at a training site in Chesterfield County.  There, the team simulated responding to and hoisting a stabilized patient as well as deploying a technician to package a patient for extraction.

“Once you get in the aircraft, you’re one up there,” said Justin D. Bennett, founding member of the HART and a training officer with Chesterfield Fire & EMS. “That speaks volumes to the amount of crew coordination inside the aircraft and the amount of trust the guys in the back and the pilots have in us and vice versa.” 

Bennett says, after so many years training together, everyone knows what the next move is, but they don’t allow their familiarity with the process to invite complacency to their training. 

“We look at every risk and if something isn’t going right, we stop,” said Bennett. “We don’t cut corners and that’s how we are where we are now.” 

The longevity of the program is also owed to leadership.

“For Chesterfield, being able to fund us taking on the eight new people, with all their gear […], that goes back to the amount of respect and support we’re getting from Chesterfield,” Bennett explained. 

Within the Virginia National Guard, Leipertz said, “we’ve had great, great influence and support from leadership, from the top down.” 

In recent years, other states have visited Virginia to learn more about setting up their own HART, and both Lathrop and Bennett believe the program will continue to grow nationally in the coming years. It is, they said, a good marriage of skillsets between first responders and the National Guard’s rotary wing capabilities. The HART, Lathrop explained, can respond to situations where nothing else, no other piece of equipment, can, an all-to-important ability when working in the business of life-saving. 

“It’s probably been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done and I’ve been so fortunate to be a part of it,” Lathrop said. “I never in my entire life thought I’d join the fire department and fly in a helicopter, but that’s how it happened.”