Some people save human life, others protect it. They all, however, are passionate about what they do, and are great professionals of broad and long-earned experience.
Regardless of whether they go to the rescue on a rocky wall using standard methods, or whether they save human life from air using a helicopter, the rescuers at the Tatra Volunteer Search and Rescue (TOPR, Tatrzańskie Ochotnicze Pogotowie Ratunkowe) must relentlessly face extreme conditions. This job not only requires specialist equipment, but most of all phenomenal preparation for it. In order to apply for the volunteer job in TOPR, one must be an experienced skier and climber, as well as a person to be trusted, which must be confirmed in writing by two TOPR rescuers proposing their candidate. A positive verification is only a beginning of an arduous road. Next in line are many years of trainings and mountain rescue activities, which is the ruthless reality check for not only the candidate’s skills, but also his personality. It is enough to mention that TOPR every year conducts about 800 search and rescue missions, including about 280 with a helicopter.
It’s no surprise then that in the ranks of Tatra search and rescue team, there are also soldiers and policemen. A cooperation between these two groups has been going for many years now. Such was the case during the last-year’s rescue mission in Jaskinia Wielka Śnieżna, where during exploration of so far undiscovered parts of the cave two very experienced speleologists died. The TOPR team estimate this operation as one of the hardest rescue tasks of this generation. “From a certain moment we knew that we were not saving a human life, but a human dignity. We never judge people we’re going to rescue. Obviously, we take the risk, but we are absolutely aware of it as we follow the oath we once took. It’s often thanks to explorers – just as it was the case last year – that we discover places never explored before, which reveal the beauty and mystery of this world. We understand it,” says Sgt Paweł Jankowski, a helicopter rescue specialist at the 3rd Search and Rescue Group and the TOPR volunteer. These days, by the order of the Minister of National Defense, he was deployed to directly participate in the rescue mission and, if needed, to maintain communication between MoND and TOPR.
The search and rescue mission in Jaskinia Wielka Śnieżna took over four weeks, and the rescuers’ working time underground sometimes exceeded 40 hours (per one stay). The representatives of the Operational Command of the Armed Forces, among others Col Marcin Szafraniec, ensured the chief of TOPR that they were ready to provide full support to the mission, including using military aircraft. At the same time, the GROM special military unit provided their specialist diving rebreathers, which made it possible for the rescuers to do their pyrotechnic work in narrow passages with no air circulation. The TOPR explosives specialists did the main job. These are rescuers that have been specially trained now for several years by the specialists of the Military Institute of Armament Technology in Zielonka to perform such tasks as broadening narrow cave passages with explosives. “What’s most important, despite many difficulties and risks to the safety of the rescuers themselves, the army supported them throughout the entire duration of this rescue mission,” emphasizes Sgt Jankowski. He adds that the TOPR rescuers would receive military support at different levels (commands and institutions), such as from General Rajmund T. Andrzejczak, the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces being on top of the list.
In the Tatra Mountains, another dramatic event occurred at the time. As a result of the fatal lightning strike on the Giewont summit, about 150 tourists were injured (four people were killed, two of them children). “I was carried there by helicopter on its second flight there, thunderstorm still ongoing. Having worked for two years in Afghanistan as a paramedic, I’d never encountered such a scene. The situation was very grave,” recalls Sgt Paweł Jankowski. Again, all services went to the rescue. Unfortunately, for various reasons the military Mi-8 wasn’t participating in the mission, but it would have been a huge support during evacuation of the injured. Hence, both parties work on the solutions to coordinate joint activities in the future.
In order for the cooperation between TOPR and the army to go smoothly, simply working out joint procedures is not sufficient. The mountain rescue missions are conducted in very harsh conditions, and every single minute counts towards the success. All participants must absolutely trust one another, and this can be achieved exclusively through regular joint trainings and “combat” activity. One of the first such exercises – the army and TOPR volunteers – took place over a decade ago. In 2006 and 2007, Polish soldiers, while getting ready for the mission in Afghanistan, took the alpine and aviation training in the Tatra Mountains. Andrzej “Blaszka” Blacha, the TOPR rescuer and a retired special forces soldier, recalls that the Mi-17, Mi-24 and W-3 Sokół helicopters were part of it. “One military helicopter was on duty, while others were on their training flights. Regardless of their variant, they had to perform the same tasks. Their pilots laughed that we were teaching them the reverse of what they had been taught so far. That’s actually true, because you fly differently in the mountains.”
Andrzej Blacha recalls that due to the speed and altitude, the most difficult to operate were Mi-24s. It doesn’t however mean that other pilots had easier. “I remember when on the first day one of the Mi-17 pilots had to fly to one or two airfields to pick up soldiers training in the mountains. When he left the cockpit, he was sweated head to toe. But this training paid off in Afghanistan,” emphasizes Andrzej Blacha. In the training participated the soldiers of the special forces and of other services which were to work together in the missions. A weekly training covered i.e. survival methods and helicopter longline rescue. “The entire training was held by TOPR, because Tatra are the only local high mountains. Afterwards, I met with most of these pilots and soldiers in Afghanistan, so it was easy to find common grounds with them,” adds “Blaszka.”
After a ten-year break, the army returns to the training in the Tatra Mountains, but this time the focus is on rescue missions. In May 2019, according to the scenario of Exercise Sarex, in the region of the Tatra National Park a small aircraft crushed. The TOPR volunteers were to go to the rescue with military pilots as support. “Right before the exercise, we did a series of meetings on how to combine our skills. We are all specialists in what we do, but we have different procedures, regarding e.g. communication. In flight, a military pilot was listening to the instructions of the TOPR pilot,” says Maj (Pilot) Marcin Gancarczyk, a commander of the 2nd Search and Rescue Group in Mińsk Mazowiecki. In the rescue team, there are two helicopter pilots, at least two rescuers whose role is to prepare the safe site for other rescuers, and one on-board rescuer whose role is to pull up the rescued and the rescuers, ond operate the winch. Here, differently than in the army, it is him who’s responsible for the coordination and communication. The pilot only confirms whether certain task can or cannot be done, or suggests a different technique. These differences, although small in theory, required from the military men working out a new routine. The hardest part of the exercise related however to flying in the mountains.
“All flights are extremely hard. The hardest is forecasting the weather. Strong wind, snow and low-level clouds require a lot of experience from a pilot. In such conditions he must pick up a person being rescued with his hands clenched to the chain on a rocky wall. It often happens that the rotor blades work as close as 2 or 3 meters away from this wall, and the same is the distance between the fuselage and mountainside. The thing is to be careful so the rescued person is not blown away, and the hook must be precisely passed to the rescuer so he can attach it to the rope,” says Maj (Pilot) Gancarczyk. He adds that in such operations monitoring the flight parameters must be for a pilot as natural as breathing. All his attention must be put on maintaining the right position in the air. “You have to be a born pilot to do that,” he summarizes.
Very bad weather conditions didn’t allow to conduct the main part of Exercise Sarex. Mutual learning about the rescue and military procedures, and the experience gained during the preparations paid off half year later. The TOPR helicopter, as every aerial machine, has to be routinely overhauled. In the autumn, TOPR filed a request to the army to permit the military W-3 Sokół of the 2nd Search and Rescue Group to perform duties of the overhauled machine. Such solution is permitted by i.e. the regulations on the aeronautical search and rescue (ASAR) services. “It was quite essential that the crew, which were going to be sent to the mountains, were already familiar with the air tasks in the mountains, and didn’t have to match their doings anew. This soon paid off, since on the very first day of our joint duty, during our training flight we were redirected to the region of Czarny Staw where a female tourist with injured leg needed our help,” recalls Maj (Pilot) Gancarczyk.
Such replacement will probably take place again this year. The year 2021 will be crucial, though, when the TOPR’s helicopter goes through the major overhaul. It can take several months, which is a good opportunity for both parties to expand their cooperation. This, however, is not the only field for further growth. At present, the TOPR’s helicopter is on duty only in the daylight. Night flights require specialist equipment, such as night vision. “Due to difficulties of flying at night in the mountains, we approach the task very carefully. This is our goal, interesting but still distant, as it requires a long-term training and perfect matching of the crews. We’re not planning such flights on our helicopter, but the army owns right equipment,” says Jan Krzysztof, the chief of TOPR. He points to the fact that the cooperation of TOPR and the army goes beyond the aviation field. “We have some contacts in the area of mountain and battlefield medicine. We have adapted several military solutions to our needs, such as the methods of stopping sudden bleedings applied by soldiers. This is mutual, because military paramedics also apply our solutions that worked well in the mountains, such as the procedure of handling a rescued person with severe hypothermia.” Jan Krzysztof says that the relationship of TOPR and the army dates back to 1994, when the military aviation supported the rescuers after helicopter air crush. “We are using the same resources, so the more we get from such cooperation, the better for people whom we serve. We should definitely continue this,” he explains.
About the cooperation with the army Andrzej Marasek, the training chief at TOPR, also has more to say. “We’re cooperating with special units, for example with the divers of the GROM naval unit. We teach them how to dive in the mountains or caves. We share our experience in such areas as alpine skiing or avalanche rescue,” he says. But that’s not all.
The work of rescuers is based on the knowledge passed from one generation to another, but technological advancement brings it up to a brand new level. The example can be drones. “We’re thinking about drones with thermal cameras and a proper carrying capacity, and which can stay in the air for more than several dozen minutes. So far, no such drones are available on a civil market, but the army has them,” says Andrzej Marasek.
The TOPR rescuers all emphasize that they are always very willing to share their knowledge with the army. Now is a good time to work on mutual relationship, particularly that both sides have still a lot to learn from each other. “It’s not about being awarded a decoration here, it’s about working for the right cause – which is saving a human life and health. We’d like that mountaineers, tourists, all of us, were aware that there are people who are always on alert, ready to help them in a reliable rescue system, which is capable of working regardless of circumstances, day or night, or weather conditions,” says Paweł Jankowski, a soldier and a TOPR rescuer.
autor zdjęć: por. Karol Borkowski / 2GPR