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Inside Longboat Key Fire Rescue's airlift training day

Firefighters sharpen skills in support of the helicopter crews that handle trauma victim transports.

Firefighter Paramedic Trey Bowlin watches as the Aeromed helicopter lands at Ken Thompson Parkway.
Firefighter Paramedic Trey Bowlin watches as the Aeromed helicopter lands at Ken Thompson Parkway.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer
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Longboat Key firefighter paramedic Trey Bowlin took command on May 23 in setting up the landing zone for a helicopter inbound from Tampa General Hospital. 

The helicopter — manned by a pilot, nurse and medic — operates through Aeromed Flight Services. In a worst-case scenario where the services would need to be used, the helicopter could transport victims from Longboat Key to Tampa General Hospital or Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, also in Tampa. 

Bowlin and the rest of the A-shift crew first prepared the landing site — a large grassy patch on Ken Thompson Parkway, just east of Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. 

The helicopter makes a safe landing.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer

After the crew ensured the site was clear of debris, four firefighter paramedics spread out in a large square. The landing site needs to be at least 100 feet by 100 feet, but the site on Ken Thompson Parkway is slightly larger.

Longboat Key Fire Rescue called for airlifts more frequently before 2015. That's when Sarasota Memorial Hospital opened its own trauma center. Now Longboat Key Fire Rescue usually transports trauma victims there.

A photo from a recent incident when Longboat Key Fire Rescue needed to transport a child trauma victim.
Courtesy image

But three days before the department’s May 23 training, a worst-case scenario arose when the firefighter paramedics needed to call in an airlift to All Children’s. 

Longboat Key firefighter paramedics responded to a drowning call for a 2-year-old. Before Longboat Key Fire Rescue’s arrival, CPR was in progress. At the scene, the firefighter paramedics assessed the child’s condition and continued care while transporting the patient to Ken Thompson Parkway, according to Fire Administration Manager Tina Adams. 

The young patient was airlifted from Ken Thompson Parkway after receiving care from Longboat Key Fire Rescue — the type of real-life scenario the firefighter paramedics planned on training for days later. 

Training for the worst

Aeromed primarily transports trauma victims. Victims' conditions could include anything from cardiac issues, pulmonary issues, strokes, spinal cord injuries, pediatric trauma and amputations. 

With a trauma victim, Longboat Key Fire Rescue's first option would be to transport the victim to Sarasota Memorial Hospital. But if the trauma center couldn't take on another patient for any reason, Tampa General would be the next closest trauma center. 

For any child trauma victim, the priority is to transport to All Children's in Tampa. 

Firefighter paramedics would respond to the scene, and then call for airlift services if necessary. The local firefighter paramedics would continue care and help load the patient onto the helicopter when the medic and nurse on board would take over. 

One of the most important topics of the training was safety around the helicopter. 

In a real-life situation, the firefighter paramedics would need to be cautious maneuvering around the hot (or running) helicopter, especially near the blades. 

That includes making sure they aren’t wearing anything loose, like a hat or a stethoscope. If one of those objects gets picked up by one of the helicopter’s turbines, it could prove dangerous and cause damage to the helicopter.

When setting up the landing zone, there isn’t much trouble on a sunny, clear day. 

But add in some weather conditions and the situation can get complicated. Some rain would be fine, but the helicopter can’t operate in a thunderstorm. 

Caitlyn Buell shows the Longboat Key Fire Rescue crew the helicopter's interior.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer

The flight crew also has to be aware of conditions near the landing site, like fog in the early morning. For that, the Aeromed crew said they are usually in tune with various weather tools on their devices. 

Daytime landings also require less prep on the ground for the firefighter paramedics setting up the site. Firefighter paramedics might need to relay to the flight crew landmarks via radio, like a large cell tower on Ken Thompson Parkway. 

But during the night, the firefighter paramedics would need to use special markers visible from the helicopter. The Aeromed crew also said they frequently look for the lights of firetrucks or ambulances to guide the way. 

Ideally, the crew aims to be “skids up to skids down” in 10 minutes. 

Firefighter Paramedic Trey Bowlin got the opportunity to take a ride in the helicopter after the training.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer

The Longboat Key Fire Rescue Department's goal is to complete this training every two years, which consists of an hour of classroom training followed by an hour of training in the field with a helicopter. 

The idea is for Longboat Key personnel to familiarize themselves with the functions and feel of the helicopter in a training situation, while the helicopter is cold, or not running. 

That way, if the firefighter paramedics do need to use the airlift, then they know how best to help the flight crew and take care of a trauma patient.



Carter Weinhofer

Carter Weinhofer is the Longboat Key news reporter for the Observer. Originally from a small town in Pennsylvania, he moved to St. Petersburg to attend Eckerd College until graduating in 2023. During his entire undergraduate career, he worked at the student newspaper, The Current, holding positions from science reporter to editor-in-chief.

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