Mountain Rescue: Helicopters for mountain rescue
December 15, 2017
A couple weeks ago there was an enlightening article in the Sky-Hi News entitled "Splitboarding 101" which presented ten backcountry snowboarding lessons. One of the lessons recommended carrying a Spot Satellite Messenger, one of several personal locater devices on the market. I have written previous articles on the Spot, the Garmin inReach and also PLB devices that can send an emergency help signal via satellite. We definitely recommend the use of these satellite GPS messengers as an ancillary emergency notification option.
With any satellite device there are intrinsic failure possibilities. There must be a clear view of the sky in order for the device to "see" the satellite array. Heavy foliage and deep canyons can prevent signals getting out or sending accurate location information. Batteries can fail, or devices can be lost or broken. If you are incapacitated, you may not be able to physically activate the device.
The notion in the article that got my interest was this quote: "You can hit one button and the helicopter is coming to get you."
One of the issues with today's backcountry crowd is the somehow ingrained sense that help is just a click away. The belief that the cavalry will suddenly gallop up to save your butt is like an entitlement, an un-earned entitlement at that.
Helicopters are a valuable asset when it comes to mountain rescue, but there are many factors that determine whether or not a helicopter will be utilized on any specific mission. For mountain rescue operations we have access to either medical ambulance helicopters like Flight for Life (FFL), or military helicopters stationed in Colorado and accessed through the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) in Florida.
The highest value consideration in any operation is safety. Unless the safety factor for the flight crew, the SAR personnel and the subject are within reasonable limits the helicopter option will get scrubbed. Safety factors include weather, darkness, terrain and altitude. A risk vs reward evaluation is always considered.
Crew and helicopter availability can also cancel or delay a helicopter request. If all the helicopter assets are busy, or if the crew is timed out, a delay is inevitable. High winds, low visibility or precipitation can all prevent a helicopter from accessing the rescue even though the weather might be clear on site.
When considering risk vs. reward a key factor is the subject's emergency. Unless there is danger to life or limb a helicopter is not generally an option. So if you push the "send help" button on your messenger device we have no way of knowing what your emergency is. We will not dispatch a helicopter until we have eyes on verification of life or limb threat. That could take some time.
Even if your emergency is life threatening and we decide to request a helicopter and a helicopter is available and the weather is flyable launching a helicopter is not instantaneous. Often the quickest response will come from Flight for Life which will launch from either Denver or Summit County. Response time to a Grand County location could be as short as twenty minutes in a perfect scenario. More likely 45 minutes to an hour.
A military rotor wing takes quite a bit longer. I have seen them launch within 45 minutes, but more typically the notification and "spin up" process takes an hour or two. These National Guard helicopters are based at either the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site (HAATS) in Eagle or Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora.
So the bottom line here is that satellite messengers, and cell phones, are definitely a good thing to carry in the backcountry, but don't count on them for survival. Even if they do get an emergency message out, it could take hours for help to get to your location. Take standard precautions like carrying survival and first aid gear, and always tell somebody where you are going, and when you will return. Help is not a click away.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com or on Facebook/GCSAR.