HAI’s first-responder database is up and running with more than 250 helicopters registered since it became operational last July. The association formed the database in response to communications gaps that came to light after 9/11 and rescue missions flown in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The database is designed to allow various government agencies to quickly identify and request specific civil sector helicopters in the hours and days following a national emergency.
For several years, HAI had held discussions with various federal agencies in an attempt to form a government-sponsored database, but those discussions never got off the ground. When Matt Zuccaro became president of HAI in 2005, he tasked his organization’s IT department with creating a database independent of the government. “I felt that if HAI didn’t do it, no one would,” he said.
HAI’s database contains a search engine that allows government agencies to scan for available helicopters by zip code, latitude and longitude, town or county. It also calculates the distance of the helicopter’s base to the site where it is needed.
The database is just the first step in HAI’s ongoing efforts to help coordinate member assets during emergencies, said Zuccaro. HAI is holding talks with various government agencies, including the Department of Transportation, the Transportation Security Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the FAA to decide how best to use civil helicopters in an emergency. These details include how to create staging and servicing areas, how to ensure the delivery of fuel to helicopters, coordination of ground marshaling and ways to facilitate communications between mobile command centers, emergency services and air traffic control.
“These people within these agencies have the same passion we do,” said Zuccaro, who blames “the system for getting in the way” of employing civil helicopters in times of crisis. “It’s just very frustrating to look at a need and see that the system does not allow a solution.”
Zuccaro said HAI is also “pre-vetting” aircraft to be used in emergencies and providing participating aircraft operators answers on issues such as insurance liability and state Good Samaritan acts that might allow Part 91 aircraft to be used for commercial purposes in an emergency.
Zuccaro said he sees this volunteer helicopter force as swooping in only in the immediate hours and days after a catastrophic event such as Katrina, and later mainly in a support role aiding military and government assets flying cargo, passengers or aerial observers.
“It makes more sense to use a military Black Hawk with a hoist and carrying paramedics to lift people out of harm’s way, rather than using it to deliver supplies,” he said. “In an emergency it makes no sense to take these assets away from essential missions.”
However, Zuccaro noted, “We have operators who have achieved the highest level of professionalism in heavy and precision lift in logging operations, slinging heavy loads, firefighting, EMS and all the other services you need in an emergency. They are ready to go and do front-line missions right now.”