OCEAN CITY, Md. (AP) — Ocean City lifeguards have a new tool to help rescue foundering swimmers from choppy ocean waves: a Maryland State Police helicopter.

A dozen senior lifeguards were selected for training as rescue swimmers to be deployed from a State Police helicopter.

Beach Patrol Capt. Butch Arbin said it’s the quickest way to get a victim safely out of the water and get them medical attention when time is critical. And, for lifeguards who have spent decades working for the Beach Patrol, it’s an invigorating opportunity to try something new.

“It gives us a resource that’s never been available in this area before,” Arbin said. “If there were an offshore boating
accident, or a wave runner accident in the back bay, we could actually get to the victim quicker.”

Six surf rescue technicians in blue swim trunks and sunglasses did run-throughs this week on dry land, at the resort’s Coast Guard station, guided by MSP helicopter pilots and field paramedics in black jumpsuits and helmets.

Lifeguards in red flippers wore harnesses attached to a winch on the side of the helicopter, and they rehearsed being raised and lowered as it would happen during a real emergency over the water.

MSP flight paramedic Carl Hardcastle worked first with lifeguard Sgt. Ryan Cowder. Hardcastle flipped a switch, and a harnessed Cowder went from seated inside the helicopter to hanging from the winch, like a mountain climber dangling from a sheer cliff face.

When helicopter blades are whirring and the engines are roaring, communicating by hand gestures is crucial. Pilots taught lifeguards commands such as how to say they’re OK while in the water (tap on head), when they need to be raised (twirling finger upright) or when it’s time to discontinue (throat slash motion).

After the dry runs, pilots took lifeguards two at a time in the air, where they practiced rescues by pulling dummies from the inlet. The helicopter has to take the least amount of time possible to hover, because hovering in a stationary position puts the most stress on the aircraft’s engines, pilots said.

Earlier this year, the MSP Aviation Unit began exploring better ways to deploy its fleet of medevac helicopters around the state, with the goal of positioning resources where they’re most needed, and to cut down on response times.

As a result, MSP decided to station its Salisbury-based helicopter, called Trooper 4, at the Ocean City Municipal Airport
on weekends, because that’s where call volumes are higher.

The resulting partnership between Maryland’s most advanced beach patrol and its most advanced aerial rescue unit is expected to shorten response times and help to save lives, said MSP Lt. Walt Kerr, a spokesman for the aviation unit.

Kerr said it’s the first attempt by state police helicopters to lower people over the water.

“These are water experts,” he said. “We will not put ourselves in the water. We know better than to do that.

“The only people we’re putting in the water are people who look like him,” Kerr added, pointing to lifeguard Brent Weingard, a Beach Patrol sergeant.

Weingard, 41, said he thinks the training is “awesome.”

“I think it’s a great program. It’s just a new evolution for the Beach Patrol. It makes us an even more professional
organization, working with the best police officers in Maryland. I feel very fortunate to have my job and to do this. It’s an amazing opportunity.”

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(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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