It was a drill Houdini would have loved. Grown men bolted in a cage splashing down into the Santa Clarita Pool on a hot sunny day.
Each man took turns being strapped to a harness, fastened to a chair bolted inside a metal cage and then dumped upside down into the water.
“Yeah, the water rushes up your nose and you can’t breathe, but it’s fun,” said Gabe Larios, firefighter with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, as he emerged dripping from the Saugus pool and breathing deeply.
He and the other firefighters took part in “air ops” training exercises Friday, learning how to free themselves from a helicopter in the event they should ever crash over water.
“It’s a skill you hope you never have to use,” firefighter Mike Nelson told The Signal.
The “air ops” training was carried out Friday for eight new “Air Operations Personnel” of the Los Angeles County Fire Department under the supervision of four instructors.
Training is mandatory for the Fire Department’s firefighters, said Captain Brian Kross who helped out with Friday’s training.
The drill, which famed magician Houdini would have loved, involves simulated “sinking exercises to prepare New Air Operations personnel for emergency exit procedures in situations where a crash landing over water may be required.”
After the trainee is strapped into the cage, his peers tumble the cage into the pool.
The trainee is then expected to release his communications “comm” cord, and then his seat belt, all underwater while holding his breath – and then surface.
If it takes him longer than expected to free himself, the trainee can reach into his vest for a cylinder the size of a water bottle.
“It’s called Spare Air,” Kross said. “And you have 30 breaths with it.”
“You have got to be ready to mitigate the issue, whatever it will be,” Kross said. “And, in this case, it’s failure of the helicopter. You’ve got to be able to get out of the helicopter.”
“So, you’re strapped to a seat underwater upside down,” he said, noting the training could save lives if the task can be completed while a crashed chopper sinks in the dark cold waters of the Pacific Ocean, or Castaic Lake.
Every year, firefighters go through the drill – referred to by the rank and file as the HUET (Helicopter Underwater Egress Training) exercise – ensuring the exercise stays fresh in their minds.
The HUET training aims to increase time-saving awareness of situational characteristics that can prevent successful escape, such as the role of the seat belt to control excess buoyancy caused by the safety suits inside the helicopter, how to operate the external breathing system, and to carefully store away excess seat belt length.
The training involves simulated sinking in a pool while rotating the training module upside down and focuses students on bracing for impact, identifying primary and secondary exit points, avoiding obstacles, surfacing for air, and head count. The simulator will simulate an immersed cabin rotating around underwater.
Each trainee goes through the exercise three times.
Firefighter Steve Weston said he was going in for a fourth time.
He wasn’t completely happy with his other efforts, he said, so he was going to do it again.
“It’s all about doing it right,” he said.
on Twitter @jamesarthurholt