MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ - When it comes to transporting people for medical emergencies, the pilots of the Northstar helicopters based at Somerset Airport in Bedminster, and the two medical personnel on board, are the experts.

That's why, when a Northstar helicopter landed next to the Mountainside municipal building Monday night, a crowd of people were waiting for it. The arrival of the helicopter was the final part of a refresher course on what to do when a medical evacuation by air is necessary. The refresher course is given every other year to Mountainside firefighters and rescue squad members. Marie O'Donnell, a flight nurse with the medevac service, went over all the rules involving when to call in a medevac unit, how to prepare the site where it will land, what not to do when it lands, how to approach it and how to transfer the patient from the ambulance to the medical personnel that travel with the helicopter. The Mountainside firefighters and members of the Mountainside Rescue Squad really paid attention, because the information she provided could save a life.

The first rule, is if you think a person needs to be in a trauma center, "call us," said O'Donnell. "If you change your mind, you can cancel the call," but since it takes seven minutes for a helicopter to be airborne, and time is of the essence, "if you have to think about it, make that call."

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Second, prepare the landing zone (LZ). The ground should be flat, at least 110 by 110 feet, "grass, dirt, sand, concrete ... even corn, that's been done," but it can't be turf, she said. That's because officials get upset when the helicopter tears up the turf and all those little black pellets blow all over the place, she said. And, the ground has to be hard, because if it is soft, after too much rain, for instance, the helicopter can sink into the ground -- it has happened.

No one should stand in the LZ, don't use spotlights to attract attention, never aim them at the helicopter, stay back another 100 feet from the edge of the LZ, and, once the helicopter lands, don't head to the helicopter, the medical crew will come to the patient.

Finally, whatever you do, "don't walk near the tail of the helicopter." Follow the nurse to the helicopter and the "approach will be from the 9 or 3 o'clock position," she said. the patient will be loaded into the helicopter head first and, she told the rescue squad members, "if you have them, use a backboard," it makes the transfer that much easier, she said.

The lessons were given in Mountainside meeting room and everyone listened intently, but it's all words, until you actually experience the landing of a helicopter. That happened after the session. Everyone walked outside to the driveway out to Route 22 and watched as the Northstar helicopter circled the field two times then, on the third pass, hovered above the field adjacent to the building before setting down.

When the helicopter landed, its blades sent gusts of wind hundreds of feet beyond the landing zone, almost knocking people off their feet. One of the rescue squad members said once, after loading a patient into the helicopter, the ambulance crew walked up the hill towards the municipal building and were cleaning up the area when the helicopter took off. The force of the wind sent their rig's stretcher across the parking lot before they could stop it.

Everyone walked down the hill after the rotors stopped spinning and had a chance to look inside the helicopter, which was equipped for medevac. They asked questions of the two pilots, Dan Vanco and Ryan Molchan, and O'Donnell while they checked out the equipment and took lots and lots of pictures. It was the highlight of the evening. Some family members even showed up to check out the helicopter.

As part of the training, O'Donnell presented the history behind using helicopters for medical evacuations -- it started after World War II. Today, there are 13 private medical evacuation helicopters operating in New Jersey and two state-funded medevac helicopters.  These two are funded by the $3 fee attached to every driver's license and car registration in the state. No one is charged for a ride in the Northstar helicopter, O'Donnell said, that is not the case with the other helicopters.

The helicopters are New Jersey State Police helicopters, which are stationed at Somerset Airport in Bedminster. There are five Agusta Westland AW-139 medevac helicopters that are maintained by the New Jersey State Police Aviation Unit. When they go out, they are piloted by two New Jersey State Troopers and each flight has a UH-EMS Flight Paramedic and Flight Nurse who provide advanced life support care while in transit to specialty hospitals. The helicopters take patients to the various Level I and Level II Trauma centers in the state, where there are trauma surgeons on site at all times.

The helicopters are also used to assist Homeland Security, take part in searches for missing persons and fugatives, rescue operations, including hoisting operations, SWAT Team operations and in public services efforts including "Every 15 Minutes," a program that recreates a fatal car accident and its aftermath.  

Learn more about Northstar and the JEMstar program on its Facebook page.