Avy-ready: Summit County coordinates rescue drill for responders
April 12, 2011
Because communication and teamwork between emergency agencies in Summit County is crucial, the county hosted its annual inter-agency rapid deployment team exercise Monday in the backcountry terrain on Searle Pass, off Highway 91.
Summit County Rescue Group spokesman Rich Miller used the recent slide near Arapahoe Basin as an example of inter-agency emergency response that required teamwork.
The teams who responded to the avalanche that buried one and partially buried another backcountry traveler ranged from Summit County Rescue Group and Arapahoe Basin ski patrollers to sheriff’s office personnel, Forest Service staff and Flight for Life, Miller said.
“There were many agencies on scene and they all dovetailed together and worked together seamlessly,” he said. “That was really gratifying to see after so much training.”
Emergency personnel know and respect each other and aim to work together to solve the problems that arise at the ski resorts and in the backcountry, he added.
But practice makes perfect, and that was the goal of Monday’s exercise.
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Realistic practice scenarios
Three identical avalanche situations were set up in the bowls of Searle Pass Monday, with four victims – one partially buried and injured, one fully buried with severe injuries, a deep burial and a shallow burial fatality.
They’re pretty realistic scenarios, said Joe Ben Slivka of Summit County Rescue Group. He was positioned off-scene as a master coordinator, which is also true to life. The coordinator is generally in a place, such as a nearby road, that has communication with both dispatch and the on-ground crew.
“(The crews) paint a picture of what’s going on in the scenario,” Slivka said – such as the size of the slide, the aspect, slope and more. It’s his job to ensure the resources they ask for – more dogs, searchers, an evacuation – are delivered.
Teams from Copper Mountain, Ski Cooper, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Breckenridge Ski Resort, Keystone Resort and Summit County Rescue Group were involved in Monday’s exercise.
They were given slightly more than an hour to clear the scene, but the goal is to find all the victims and provide the appropriate care within 10 to 20 minutes, Summit County Rescue Group member Denise Fair said.
When the Summit County Sheriff’s Office’s dispatch gets an avalanche call, Flight for Life becomes a key member in the rapid avalanche deployment team. It dumps its medical crew and picks up the call’s first responders – an avalanche dog and its handler as well as a snow technician, Miller said.
In the chopper, they discuss where to land. In Monday’s exercise, the pilot may quiz the snow technician about possible landing zones even though he’s already fairly certain where he intends to set down.
CD Shrack of Keystone Resort ski patrol said, when he’s in the chopper, he’s simultaneously assessing the scene. He’s thinking about how big the slide is, whether he needs more resources, the best way to get them in and more.
“I’m thinking, ‘how much can I cover and feel I’m doing it fast and effectively?'” Shrack said.
Resources often come by way of Summit County Rescue Group, members of which are assembling near the site and arranging on-ground entry as the chopper flies in the first response.
Just as communication with dispatch and the master coordinator is crucial, so, too, is communication among the responding members.
In Monday’s exercise, Arapahoe Basin’s Brian York worked with his beacon and dog Ruby as Devon Haire combed the scene with his own beacon. They communicated with the partially buried victim to identify the severity of injuries, how many people were buried and where they might be. They then worked together to locate the victims and make quick calls the best they could – such as allowing the deep burial to sit while they assessed the condition of other victims.
It took them more than 40 minutes to locate all the bodies – alive or “dead.” Often, rescue group members are removing bodies rather than performing live rescues.
Which is why backcountry travelers should remember they and their partners are their own first line of defense.
“The people you are with are your first rescuers,” Miller said. “So it’s important to have the right equipment and know how to use it.”