Lake County Sheriff's Department helicopter unit gearing up for hoist rescues

A Lake County Sheriff's Department Aviation Unit helicopter practices a hoist rescue with paramedic Mark Baumgardner at the Griffith/Merrillville Airport.

If a boat gets stranded on Lake Michigan or a hiker breaks a leg while hiking deep in the woods of the Indiana Dunes, the closest helicopter capable of a hoist rescue is a U.S. Coast Guard unit two hours away in Traverse City, Michigan.

But the Lake County Sheriff's Department Aviation Unit has been working to change that.

The helicopter unit based out of the Griffith/Merrillville Airport in Griffith recently received a $15,000 Indiana Department of Homeland Security grant to buy the equipment needed for hoist rescues, in which a paramedic rappels down and uses the hoist to lift a patient into the helicopter, which then flies to the nearest hospital. The money will pay for harnesses, a rescue basket like the Coast Guard uses and other essentials.

"In a field, it's an hour walk," said Lake County sheriff's deputy Jamie Hicks, the department's crew chief mechanic. "After an injury happens, there's a golden hour for treatment. If you have to hike a mile in or even 50 yards in, that can take a hell of a lot of your time. This way, you can get there, pick up your package and come back."

The unit, which now consists of eight police officers and firefighters from the Lake County Sheriff's Department and other local departments, has been training to practice hoist rescues. It's looking to train at least two additional officers so it can start performing live hoist rescues out in the field.

"Most common around here would be anything water-related in Lake Michigan or anything on trails or in remote areas," paramedic Mark Baumgardner said. "We've had a couple of scenarios where we were requested where we couldn't fulfill it because we're not there yet. If someone at a state or county park gets injured, sometimes it's just the quickest way to do it." 

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Baumgardner, who's been training to rappel down to the ground and lift the patients back up to safety, said the aviation unit wouldn't be performing such dramatic airborne rescues every day, but said having the capability could be vital in life-threatening situations.

"When it's needed, it's really needed. You can clearly save lives by cutting the amount of time it takes to get somebody out of somewhere," he said. "It could help in disaster situations or flash floods, you can't get a boat or truck somewhere."

Hicks said it wasn't yet known how soon the sheriff's office — which has one of just three helicopter units in the state — could start performing such rescues.

"We don't have a date just yet," he said. "We're still securing some equipment. And we're still training other people to do our jobs."

Video: Aviation Unit practices a hoist rescue 

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Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.