HAI launches disaster-relief database, invites volunteers

 - September 13, 2006, 2:24 PM

Last month the Helicopter Association International (HAI) rolled out its First Responder program–an online database of helicopter operators who, in the event
of future natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, are willing to put their assets at the disposal of U.S. government organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The association is inviting members and non-members to sign up at its Web site, www.rotor.com. After they create an account, users enter contact details and data on each individual airframe, beginning with the basics such as tail number and type. They then use a series of pull-down menus, fields or checkboxes to list relevant role equipment such as hoists and searchlights.

HAI president Matt Zuccaro told AIN, “We carried out a beta test with about a dozen operators, so we have ironed out the bugs and are ready for operators to sign up.”

The database is initially a U.S.-oriented resource, but Zuccaro intends to export the plan, first to Canada. “Then we want to make it as broad-based and international as possible. The idea is that our people will be able to enter a zip code, a lat-long reference or [abroad] the name of a city and be able to see a list of individual helicopter resources within a chosen radius of that position, together with operator contact details. We will manage the information and alert the operators, who will then know who to contact at the relief organization,” he said.

“We will eliminate all the confusion about who those organizations should call. The service will be 24/7 so we will be issuing some HAI staff members with pagers–if contacted they have the tools to access the data from any Internet computer.

“The precise location of individual airframes is particularly important, and we need operators to keep these up to date. We will be sending them regular reminders that the maximum benefit from First Responder will be achieved only if they update their data every time one of their helicopters is redeployed. It takes only a minute or two and can save precious time in the event of a disaster. Nevertheless, if there is an emergency, we will also contact the affected operators to make sure their helicopters are where they say they are.”

Getting Resources Where They Are Needed
In addition to FEMA and DHS, HAI has targeted organizations such as the Departments of Transportation, Health and Human Resources and Defense, as well as state emergency response teams. Zuccaro says they are all on board. “As the database becomes populated–and we think this will happen really quickly–the next move is to discuss with them how best they can deploy their resources. It’s not just a question of sending helicopters in the right direction: we want to make sure that they are used effectively when they get there.

“The expertise of HAI members covers every aspect of operating helicopters: as well as flying and engineering, they can offer ATC marshalling, ground handling and safety services, for example. We want to harness these skills as well, to enable us to provide a fully functioning helicopter staging area close to the center of a disaster.

“We’re not about providing one piece of the puzzle; we want to solve the whole thing.”

Zuccaro says that the program is designed to take advantage of the benefits and capabilities of helicopters and other aircraft to assist rescue efforts during times of emergency or crisis. “Getting assistance quickly to stricken areas often means the difference between life or death.

“By participating in the First Responder program, you are signaling your availability to help during emergency rescue and relief efforts on short notice. A quick, coordinated response to disaster or devastation requires information to be available to authorities who can contact First Responders and ask for help. Operators will have the opportunity to provide and update this critical information through this Web site.”

It is important to note, he concludes, that participation in the program is optional. Even if registered, an operator can decline to respond to any request for help if its situation dictates. HAI encourages First Responder program participants to consider the seriousness of this effort and its potential impact for benefiting emergency victims.

Finally, Zuccaro added, “I hope to God that this database never needs to be used, but it will be good to know it’s there.”