Multi-agency training exercises provide vital experience for emergency teams

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter from Astoria hovers over the St. Helens waterfront as fire and rescue crews from various agencies prepare to rush in for a basket hoist drill Friday, Feb. 23.The engine of a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter hummed as propellers sent debris and heavy gusts of wind over frozen patches of water near the St. Helens waterfront Friday, Feb. 23.

As crews packed in to the helicopter, firefighters formed a small, single-file line on the field nearby, ready to rush and grab a rope line.

Friday's frigid exercise was just that — an annual training exercise involving multiple emergency response agencies from Columbia County and beyond.

"If something happens in our county, like a major flood event, we all need to be working together," Jeff Pricher, a division chief with the Scappoose Fire District and the county's fire marshal, explained from the comfort of his office Tuesday. Pricher said the trainings allow law enforcement, fire districts and marine response units to combine staff and resources for a one-day training that offers practice, familiarity with aircraft and watercraft, and simulations of disaster scenarios.

"They're not that common," Pricher said of the multi-agency training exercises. "We don't get to train all that often, so this was a unique opportunity for us."

The training utilized a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter — a rare commodity among emergency responders in the region. A few hundred feet from the helicopter, Steve Pegram, Columbia County's emergency management director, raised a handheld radio to his face.

Further away, Pricher operated a commercial grade drone, capturing overhead views of a helicopter exercise in which firefighters took turns practicing a basket hoist drill. The drone has become an invaluable tool to the fire district, Pricher says.

"We've used it for a few fires and building inspections," Pricher noted, pulling up previous footage of a major landslide near Mist/Birkenfeld he captured with the drone. The small aircraft can also provide a bird's eye view of wildfires, and new technology allows drones to be equipped with thermal imaging cameras to detect when someone is trapped in water, or a burning home.

As the military helicopter hovered above the field at the waterfront, a small metal basket was dropped. In extreme circumstances, up to two people can be loaded into the basket and lifted to safety.

Friday's drill provides a vital, hands-on experience that better prepares responders for working with outside agencies and responding to large-scale disaster calls, Pricher said.

"We need a lot of bodies, and when a big emergency event happens in our county, we're all going to be working together," Pricher added.

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