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Decatur Fire and Rescue firefighter Steve Barnett reviews coordinates with MedFlight pilot Tom Reynard and Decatur Fire and Rescue Lt. Douglass K. Davies on Monday.
Daily photo by Emily Saunders
Decatur Fire and Rescue firefighter Steve Barnett reviews coordinates with MedFlight pilot Tom Reynard and Decatur Fire and Rescue Lt. Douglass K. Davies on Monday.

MedFlight at
your door

Fire department using GPS to establish medical helicopter landing zones in Decatur

By Bayne Hughes · 340-2432

Decatur Fire and Rescue has bought eight $300, handheld global positioning system units and is establishing landing zones throughout the city for medical helicopters.

Lt. Douglass Davies, project leader for the fire department, said this should make it quicker for a helicopter to reach an emergency. No longer will the pilot have to search for a second landing spot after deciding the first identified spot is unsuitable.

Davies said this could save five minutes, which could mean everything to someone involved in a wreck, rescued from a house fire or having a heart attack. He estimated the landing zones could affect 60 or 70 people a year.

Station 8 firefighters spent two months mapping "pre-evaluated landing areas" with GPS coordinates in the Burningtree, Indian Hills and Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge portions of south Decatur and Interstate 65. MedFlight personnel are evaluating the areas this week.

Davies said it should take about a year to establish zones in the city's remaining seven fire districts. Pending approval, Station 2's area in north Decatur, which includes many of the city's industries, is next on the schedule. Morgan County 911 will enter the coordinates into a digital template for a new city emergency map.

Landing areas must be at least 100 feet in diameter and clear of trees and power lines. They can't be near homes with multiple windows that could be damaged by flying debris blown by the helicopter's rotor system.

With an average of three flights a day, each MedFlight helicopter carries a pilot, a paramedic and a registered nurse throughout northern Alabama and southern Tennessee.

Lead pilot Tom Reynard said the most difficult landings come at night in dark, rural settings.

After the local 911 center relays the call with the GPS coordinates, a global positioning system allows the pilot to fly directly to a spot, not having to search for landmarks or roads, which are often difficult to see at night.

While flashing emergency lights are usually visible from the air, Reynard said, trees sometimes shield sites from view.

Upon arrival, Reynard makes a quick reconnaissance of a spot before landing. He said sometimes the people on the ground who established a landing site don't see a problem that he sees from the air, so he must look elsewhere. Having a pre-existing site eliminates the guesswork, improving response and safety.

"The night and wire are our biggest and worst enemies," Reynard said. "We won't land if it's not safe."

The landing zones also help the fire department in its response. Lt. Steve Barnett said these landing zones will be particularly helpful in getting to someone with health issues on one of the city's four golf courses.

Happy landings

Decatur Fire and Rescue identified areas at Burningtree, Indian Hills, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and Interstate 65 to establish landing zones for medical helicopters.

MedFlight personnel are evaluating these areas, so some could be eliminated:

  • Alabama 67, mile 38.

  • Alabama 67, mile 37

  • Alabama 67, mile 36

  • Paved driveway at Lower River and Walker roads

  • Parking lot at J&L Mobile Home Parts

  • Interstate 65, mile marker 332

  • Interstate 65, mile marker 333

  • Interstate 65, mile marker 334

  • Interstate 65, mile marker 335

  • Interstate 65, mile marker 336

  • Interstate 65, mile marker 337 (center of bridge)

  • Interstate 65, mile marker 338 (end of bridge)

  • Fire Station No. 8: Indian Hills Road in the grass

  • Interstate 65, mile marker 331

  • Bethel Road, church parking lot

  • Grass area off Indian Hills Road

  • Grass area off Red Bank Road

  • Refuge headquarters road at rear of property

  • Alabama 67 Wheeler Refuge handicap fishing pier

  • Wheeler Refuge Visitor Center Road

  • Alabama 67 parking lot

  • Boat launch off Hickory Hills Road

  • Field beside church on Old River Road

  • Parking lot of Mallard Village Shopping Center.

  • Gravel lot behind Mallard Village Shopping Center

  • McDonald’s on Alabama 67

  • Grass area at Deere Road and Collier Drive

  • Grass area at Bennich Road.

  • Bethel Road

  • Grass field on Crusher Road

  • Ivy Dale and Village Creek roads.

  • Grass area off Willow Bend Road

  • A second grass area off Willow Bend Road

  • Summerwind Drive

  • Gravel area off Ben Poole Road

    Bayne Hughes

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