Mountain Rescue | Basic skills: First aid for mountain rescue |

Mountain Rescue | Basic skills: First aid for mountain rescue

Grand County Search and Rescue team members practice packaging a patient during last weekend's SAR First Responder field exercise. The "patient" was suffering from a femur fracture and diabetic hypoglycemia.
Greg Foley / Mountain Rescue |

One of the basic skill sets that mountain rescuers must have is first aid. Our subjects find all sorts of ways to require medical attention in the backcountry. Traumatic injuries like broken or dislocated bones are common, but we also see medical emergencies like heart attacks and strokes, environmental injuries like high altitude sickness or hypothermia, allergic reactions and diabetic shock. Alzheimer’s disease or autism can be contributing factors in our subject’s emergency. A couple of the more unusual injuries we have dealt with are a hunter who impaled his thigh with a broadhead arrow and a hiker who scalded her foot when a pot of hot coffee spilled down her boot.

Another critical reason that first aid skills are required for team members is so we can take care of each other. Our missions can be dangerous, but even if they are relatively safe there is a possibility of rescuer injury. Three rescuer injuries that I recall are frostbite on a rescue in minus 30 temps, a back injury from lifting and a broken arm in an ATV rollover. We are always watching each other for signs of dehydration, exhaustion and frostbite.

There are a number of levels of first aid training or certification targeting different user groups. Basic or standard level first aid certification, which also includes basic CPR training, is a half day class which covers recognition and rudimentary first aid for common emergencies and CPR basics.

Advanced first aid is a 16-40 hour class which can have an emphasis on a particular environment and includes more comprehensive CPR techniques. For SAR personnel a Wilderness First Aid class would be appropriate.

The next level of training is a first responder certification such as Wilderness First Responder (WFR) or Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC). OEC is the training program that ski patrol uses, and WFR is common for guide services and other outdoor professionals. Both of these programs emphasize advanced first aid and first responder CPR techniques for emergencies that are 30 minutes or more from definitive care such as an ambulance or clinic. First Responder courses, which can cost around $800, require about 80 hours of classroom and hands on training.

Becoming an EMT or WEMT (Wilderness EMT), while desirable, is a level of certification that is difficult to maintain for volunteers. WEMT initial training requires 120-150 hours of class time and cost is more than $2,000.

The required training level for GCSAR members has been set at the first responder level with specific wilderness skill upgrades. This includes CPR for professional rescuers. However, in Grand County, there is extremely limited availability for first responder classes. It would be extremely difficult, and expensive, for our volunteer members to maintain first responder certification which involved travel to the Denver area or hiring an instructor to present a group class.

What we have come up with is unique in-house training program that covers all of the first responder topics with an emphasis on the medical skills that are most important in our arena. In order to be current each member must participate annually in the GCSAR first responder training consisting of 16 hours of class instruction plus written and scenario exams. Additionally, members must participate in a minimum of four regular medical trainings each year.

Under the guidance of our medical advisor, Dr. John Nichols, GCSAR trains our members in some skills that are beyond what a typical first responder would be capable of performing. We train on providing oxygen in the backcountry, inserting advanced airways and utilizing tourniquets. Our assessment skills include clearing the patient’s spine so that immobilization procedures can be mitigated and deciding whether helicopter evacuation is required. Medical training also includes the use of SAR specific equipment like litters, toboggans and vacuum splints. Patient loading and packaging techniques are practiced extensively.

On a SAR mission we are a long way from an ambulance or clinic, with limited manpower and resources and often dealing with adverse weather. Our first responder skills allow us to function efficiently and effectively to treat our patient’s medical needs so we can evacuate to definitive care.

A reminder – if we provide medical care, there is never charge for our volunteer service.

Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 37 years. He can be reached by email at The GCSAR website can be found at or on Facebook/GCSAR.

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