Helicopter aquatic rescue team brings together Nashville FD, THP, and Army National Guard

By KATE COIL

The Nashville Fire Department is teaming up with the Tennessee Army National Guard (TANG) and Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) to create two new helicopter technical rescue teams that can be deployed statewide.

The Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team (TN-HART) and current Helicopter Technical Rescue Team will be staffed by members of each of the three agencies. TN-HART will be used to deploy into the “harshest environments” and help citizens in need across Tennessee.

Nashville Fire Department Special Ops Captain Michael Armstead said the idea was first proposed by officials with the Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) as part of ongoing partnerships the agency has with the Nashville Fire Department.

“We have been working with Tennessee Highway Patrol for six years now, and have a partnership with them going back to the 1970s that was more unofficial,” Armstead said. “About a year and a half ago, we started looking into the possibility of a helicopter rescue team with THP. Some of our friends in the Army National Guard heard what we were doing and offered to help with training, financing the team, and so forth. It has turned into a combined project.”

NFD will be supplying two fire fighters teams to work alongside THP and Army National Guard officials.

“The teams will consist of two special ops companies here with the Nashville Fire Department, Station 12 and Station 22,” Armstead said. “Our Station 12 is more well-rounded special operations company in that they do HazMat/CBRNe and technical rescue programs while Station 22 is specifically a swift water and water rescue group. With the TN-HART team, the aircraft will be managed by the Army Guard. Once the program is at 100% there will be five aircrafts dedicated to the TN-HART mission from TANG. They will provide the pilot and the crew to help assist us in rescue efforts. With the Highway Patrol, they have a trooper who flies the helicopter who has a crew chief that is another state trooper. Two of our rescuers will also be on board with that team. Everybody talking and working together makes it a lot smoother transition into a bona fide team.”

Armstead said the HART team will be based out of the National Guard location near the Nashville Airport.

“Both of Station 12 and Station 22 are located within less than five minutes from where the helicopters are at Nashville International Airport and the State Highway Patrol has an office there as well across the street from TANG,” Armstead said. “You couldn’t have planned it better. It’s like it’s been waiting to happen.”

The partnership also has other benefits for all three agencies involved.

“Putting people through this type of training costs a lot of money, and we’ve been able to get this training through the Army Guard for free,” Armstead said. “When we get the training and all the certifications through them, we won’t have to do the same with Highway Patrol. It will save both the fire department and highway patrol resources.”

There are numerous situations for which the team could be deployed ranging from difficult-to-reach accident sites to major natural disasters.

“You don’t have to look back more than a few years to see the floods that Nashville had. We could have used this tool a lot during that time,” Armstead said. “We weren’t able to get boats into places to rescue people, and so some people were stranded for a while. Just for the Nashville area alone that would be a great help. Just as recently as last year we had a logger at the north end of Davidson County who was pinned. It wasn’t a critical situation, but he was trapped. We had to hike in to rescue him. If you do your duty and diligence, you are going to prepare for the eventual earthquake on the New Madrid Fault. Without this program, we might have relied on other states to come to our aid. With this program, we can be a lead on this. We expect bridges between here and Memphis to be compromised in a situation like that. We can be deployed in natural disasters. There are also incidents with flash flooding.”

One of team’s greatest assets is to get into places that other types of transport might not be able to safely negotiate.

“With the Appalachian Trail, both federal and state parks, and places like that we could use services like this. We can fly from Nashville and be in those areas in an hour,” Armstead said. “The HART program is a state deployable asset. The governor signed off on it, and if other states have a need, they can request to use the team from TEMA through EMAC process. We could be deployed anywhere in Tennessee, and anywhere in the U.S. and or territories. Tennessee is surrounded by eight states, so geographically speaking we can do a lot of good with just our location alone for our neighbors.”

For Armstead, the best part of the program is the cooperation between different levels of government and government agencies.

“Personally, I am excited that we have all these heads of government coming together to make this work,” he said. “We have Gov. Bill Lee, Tennessee Adjutant Gen. Jeff Holmes, Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Dereck Stewart, Commissioner of Safety Jeff Long, TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan, Nashville Mayor John Cooper, and Nashville Fire Department Director-Chief William Swann all on board. All these people with all their busy schedules felt this was important to work on. I am proud we were able to have all those people participate and agree this is a good thing not just for Tennessee but the country. In today’s world of tight budgets for everybody, we can all pitch in a little and get a great product that helps the citizens of Tennessee. That is priority one over everything. Everyone believes and agrees with that mission. It is good to utilize all the resources we have at our fingertips and put this product together to help the citizens of our states and other states as well.”