Frontline Workers: ‘When you’re at the heli doors, it’s pretty intense’

Sarah Courtney saves lives in the most challenging circumstances.
Frontline Workers: ‘When you’re at the heli doors, it’s pretty intense’
Sarah Courtney, first female winchman advanced paramedic for the Irish Coastguard.
Sarah Courtney, first female winchman advanced paramedic for the Irish Coastguard.
Sarah Courtney, first female winchman advanced paramedic for the Irish Coastguard.

Sarah Courtney saves lives in the most challenging circumstances.

Ireland’s first female Winchman Advanced Paramedic with the Irish Coastguard hangs from a helicopter above wild, roaring seas to rescue people that no one else can reach.

"When you’re standing at the heli door with the rotors going over big seas it’s pretty intense. We go out in all weather but I have faith in the heli and in the crew — the winch operator and the pilot. I don’t have a huge fear factor but that’s not to say that the adrenaline isn’t on stand-by. You’re super alert."

"If you’re coming up to a cargo ship or tanker, they can come 150-feet out of the water, so you’re hanging out of the heli over big rolling seas by this immense ship.  And the biggest factor in getting you safely onto that deck is the skill of the pilot to hold the plane and the skill of the winch operator to direct the pilot to the exact place — calculating the timing of the waves, the amount of cable you need, the exact positioning to get you on deck. If you’re even 2 feet off you could land on an obstacle or get tangled in ropes. It’s very technical and very precise."

Despite the high-octane and often remote nature of Ms Courtney’s job, the coronavirus has managed to impact her vital work in the skies, creating new challenges and new roles for her and her team at the Heli Rescue 117 in Waterford: "Everybody discovered their new-found love of the mountains in the first few weeks with the coronavirus."

"But since the lockdown it has been quieter with calls mostly offshore to vessels and ships. Our service has also been made more broadly available to the Government, to assist Gardai and to the HSE for transport of medical supplies or personnel or logistical tasks."

Personal protective equipment has been a challenge but the 'work-arounds' found by her employers at the Canadian Helicopters Corporation (CHC) which operates for the Irish Regional Coastguard (IRCG), could, she believes, be replicated in other fields, to reduce huge amounts of disposable PPE being dumped.

"For us with PPE it’s tricky in the heli as standard coronavirus PPE isn’t necessarily appropriate.  Loose items are hazardous to the heli during winching. And a Tyvek suit isn’t going to go over our immersion suits and lifejackets.

"But we have adapted, CHC management have devised protocols for us to wear our helmet face and eye shields over PPE. And after any calls we decontaminate the aircraft and our immersion suits are washed and sprayed with a detergent that kills any contaminants while not damaging our suits."

"Personally I would love to see a similar approach to PPE across the board where PPE such as clothing, goggles, face shields and even appropriate masks are not single-use but can be used, safely disinfected and re-used. I shudder to think of the quantity of single-use PPE that is being dumped globally on a daily, hourly and by the minute rate at the moment."

Originally from Cork, Ms Courtney worked for the Irish Ambulance Service before joining the coastguard last year.

She said that despite the added pressure of working through a pandemic, "it feels good to be helpful".

"While the threat at present is strong, stress can be mitigated by being prepared and keeping ourselves as healthy as we can," she said.

"Our patient cohort tends to be people out-and-about rather than those with chronic conditions so it’s our colleagues in the other healthcare settings that have the real challenges right now.

"And not only the healthcare workers but the cleaners, support staff, people working in supermarkets, and those transporting supplies and all the other people that are in the background doing fundamental work to keep us all going."

Sarah Courtney, first female winchman advanced paramedic for the Irish Coastguard.
Sarah Courtney, first female winchman advanced paramedic for the Irish Coastguard.

She said that life as Ireland’s only female winchman is "pretty much the same as for the lads except that I have to put my hair in a ponytail before I put my helmet on!"

When called to a rescue, the mission is planned, the heli rotors and engines are operating in 6-8 minutes and Ms Courtney plots the route on the navigation system and maps for the pilots as they travel: "As we arrive to a scene the pilots and winch operator assess the situation for landing or winching while I prepare equipment to take with me.

"The winching process involves great skill on behalf of the pilot and the winch operator to get me safely onto a cliff or a moving deck. On the way back from a scene the winch-op and I treat the casualty in the back, before handing them over to our ambulance colleagues to take to ED."

"Everybody always says how cool a job it is but I’m not so sure how cool they’d think it is if they were at the heli door! I do love it though."

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