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On a very windy and stormy evening, the prairie resort community of Lake Newell,100 kilometres southeast of Calgary, was shaken awake in late September 2008 by noise from low flying helicopters and converging emergency services. It would be a startling and highly emotional night where technology, training and cooperation came together to save seven lives including children, police and peace officers.


June 2, 2009
By Cameron Heke

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On a very windy and stormy evening, the prairie resort community of
Lake Newell,100 kilometres southeast of Calgary, was shaken awake in
late September 2008 by noise from low flying helicopters and converging
emergency services. It would be a startling and highly emotional night
where technology, training and cooperation came together to save seven
lives including children, police and peace officers.

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CRM and coordination with the advanced communications of the STARS Emergency Link Centre played an important role in the rescue. 


“The search and rescue (SAR) began at 5:30 p.m. with a 9-1-1 call for
help after a boat carrying a family of five struck a rock in the 66
square kilometre lake,” says Captain Mike Potter, one of the pilots who
took part in the mission from the Alberta Shock Trauma Air Rescue
Society (STARS).

A Fish and Wildlife boat was dispatched with a conservation officer,
RCMP constable and regional peace officer. Two hours later, the team
found the missing family. However, with waves on this shallow prairie
lake reaching up to one metre and a cold front creating winds in excess
of 30 knots, the rescuer boat went missing as well.

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After losing contact with the boat, RCMP called the STARS Emergency
Link Centre at 10:16 p.m., and within minutes STARS was enroute with a
crew of two pilots, paramedic, critical care nurse and an emergency
physician.

 
  About Alberta STARS
  The
Alberta Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS) is a non-profit
charitable organization. Its funding needs are met through private
donations received from individuals, service groups, businesses and
corporations, and through collaborative affiliation agreements with
Capital Health and the Calgary Health Region. The Alberta Shock Trauma
Air Rescue Service Foundation is the philanthropic funding arm for
STARS.

STARS has operated from a Calgary base since 1985. The Edmonton base
started operations in 1991. The Grande Prairie base opened in 2006.

STARS collaborates closely with the fixed wing and ground ambulance
services in the province for a strong Chain of Survival and coordinated
pre-hospital care response.

The STARS vision of saving lives is supported by four pillars: patient
care and transport, emergency medical communications, education and
research, and fundraising and community support.

   

The Emergency Link Centre also contacted the Calgary Fire Department
(CFD) Dive Team. Other emergency responders who took part in the
operation included RCMP, a Calgary Police HAWC helicopter, Brooks Fire
Department and Alberta Fish and Wildlife personnel.

“Weather conditions were still extremely windy as STARS arrived,” says
Potter. “It was very dark with high overcast.”  Night vision goggles
(NVGs) were used allowing the crew to locate the overturned rescue boat
within an hour of leaving Calgary and less than 15 minutes once on
scene. 

“With only two small rescue boats aiding in the search, the night
vision goggles were instrumental,” says Potter. “The victims were in
the water or on one of the capsized boats with no signal lighting or
working communications.  Without the use of NVGs, finding the victims
so quickly would have been impossible.”

With communication from the STARS helicopter crew, a rescue boat zeroed
in on the location and pulled four adults and two children from the
cold waters. One adult was in serious condition, and two others
remained missing, including one child.

The fifth missing adult was located in the water wearing a lifejacket
at 12:20 a.m. about two kilometres from the initial rescue site. He was
then brought back to shore.

The search continued throughout the night, until the last victim, a
five-year-old, was located under the capsized boat at 5:30 a.m. She was
quickly flown by STARS to Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre but was
pronounced dead shortly after.

“Unfortunately we weren’t able to save everyone, but the remaining
seven could have easily succumbed to the conditions that night,” says
Potter.  “Without the NVGs, the helicopter’s search light and a great
crew, we wouldn’t have been able to save these lives.” 

Potter says Crew Resource Management (CRM) and coordination with the
advanced communications of the STARS Emergency Link Centre played an
important role. The aircraft had equipment including a high powered
search light, moving map display, satellite communications and VHF
radio with tactical channels which all aided in this type of mission.

When asked what was learned from this mission, Potter says there needs
to be a focus on communication and safety “whether inside the aircraft
or speaking with individuals involved with the call – know your
limitations, the aircraft limitations and utilize CRM.”

“The fact that STARS has the ability to conduct this type of operation
with NVGs speaks volumes about the organization’s commitment and
dedication to saving lives” says Potter.  “This was a very significant
rescue and I am very proud to have taken part in it.”


Cameron Heke is Senior Public Relations Advisor/External Affairs and Communications, STARS.


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