Helicopters for Emergency Care

MurraySafety in the outdoors

Helicopters have become an important part of patient transport over recent years. They have often improved the outcome of some otherwise dire situations.

However, it is important that we don’t place too much reliance on them — they are not always available due to weather, communications or other problems. Other methods of transportation may be needed.

Hopefully, you are never in a position that you have to evacuate one of your part members from the outdoors that can’t get themselves out due to illness or injury. It is a pretty stressful position to be in. While you can carry somebody a small distance it really isn’t a real option for distances over a kilometre or two.

Who do you call?

Unless you are prepared to pay the bill, all helicopter callouts need to be processed through the ambulance (111) system. If you do get a helicopter sent to your aid it is helpful if you are aware of the safety procedures you must use with these versatile machines.

If you are the person calling the helicopter, remember that the pilot may be relying on your observations of the weather. You should take an accurate assessment of the visibility and wind conditions.

It is important to be specific and be aware that helicopters can only operate in good visibility, will not be able to reach you in total cloud cover and can only operate in a limited capacity at night when the pilot has good visibility.


Another thing to consider is the terrain you are in. Helicopters need a reasonable area of pretty flat ground to land in. You may need to move the patient that the helicopter can access.

You will need a flat area of about 30 meters diameter. If this is not available, look for a prominent rock or something that could be used as a platform for a hover load. Sometimes this is the only option in a river gorge or mountainous terrain.

If you have to load the helicopter when it is hovering do so gently without any sudden moves as this may destabilise the machine. If none of these options are available a long-line or winch extraction may be possible. It is really important to let ambulance control know this as soon as possible. The helicopters do not necessarily carry this equipment as matter of course.

Rules for helicopters

  • The most experienced person should be in charge of the group management around the helicopter.
  • All loose items must be secured. This includes hats, gloves, jackets, plastic bags etc. These can fly into the rotor causing damage and may affect the airworthiness of the machine.
  • The group should be in a group bunched together remaining low to the ground when the aircraft approaches. They should remain in place and let the machine come to them. The pilot can usually land right beside a group depending on the terrain and weather conditions.
  • Wait for a signal from the pilot or crew before approaching the machine.
  • Crouch down when walking under the rotor – especially where working on sloping ground and you are on the uphill side. Never walk around the rear of a helicopter. The tail rotor is extremely hard to see and dangerous. You should only approach where you are visible to the pilot or crew.
  • Mostly the crew will work the doors but if you are required to do this be very gently with the door operating mechanisms. These are very delicate and expensive. If you are forcing the door you are doing it wrong.
  • Carry all equipment below your waist. It’s amazing how many skis have gone into rotor blades by people holding them vertically approaching the machine.
  • Put on a headset (if available) to communicate with the pilot and crew. These have voice-activated microphones so there is no transmission button to push when speaking.

The key piece of advice to remember when working with helicopters if not to panic and rush. It can be pretty overwhelming when they arrive and they are really expensive to operate but the best thing to do is just to slow it down and make sure you and your team stay safe.

Finally, you should always have Plan B in the background. Keep it in the back of your mind that the helicopter may not make it for any range of reasons. Have a plan B if this happens.