Flight for Life helps Grand County SAR save lives
In the ’80s and ’90s each of the Denver network TV stations had a helicopter program which sometimes benefitted citizens in need of rescue. Media helicopters were often called upon and utilized for search and rescue operations, including transporting SAR personnel to remote locations and picking up lost or injured victims.
Multiple crashes and fatalities marred the programs. I flew a number of times with Peter Peelgrane, an Aussie who flew for both Channel 7 and Channel 9. He crashed into Horsetooth Reservoir in 1992 and died of his injuries in 1995. TV news helicopters and pilots like Peelgrane are a thing of the past. All Denver news desks now share one helicopter and they have been scratched from our resource list as unavailable.
Another rotary wing asset for search and rescue operations has been Flight for Life (FFL), which has five airships based in Colorado. FFL is primarily an air ambulance service, but has long been able to provide some assistance to search and rescue efforts despite the dangers involved. In 1994 a FFL helicopter crashed during a rescue on Mt. Huron in Chaffee County, killing the pilot and flight nurse.
Grand County Search and Rescue (GCSAR) and other rescue teams have enjoyed a long term relationship with FFL, counting on their excellent pilots and high altitude capability to evacuate patients in need of rapid transport to definitive care. Additionally, FFL has assisted by transporting rescuers and has even assisted with body recoveries. In 2012, FFL received an Outstanding Contribution to Mountain Rescue Award from the Mountain Rescue Association.
Until recently, the arrangement with the sheriffs provided that FFL, as a nonprofit organization, would assist with search and rescue efforts for a nominal operational charge, usually $500 or $1,000, which would be waived if a patient was transported. FFL seldom actually collected this fee, generally writing it off. Still, it gave search and rescue teams, and county sheriffs, a reason not to call.
Late last year FFL announced that it will no longer charge for search and rescue assistance calls.
“Our goal is to support the sheriff and SAR teams in the best possible way and we believe that this may assist the sheriff in utilizing our resource to give the best possible care to a patient or to recover a victim quickly and safely and minimize the number of people in the field,” said Kevin Kelble, FFL spokesperson.
The services provided include the “Lift Ticket” program, which provides backcountry insertions for trained rescuers even if there is not a patient to transport at the end of the day. About 75 percent of GCSAR members are “Lift Ticket” trained annually. We have used this service many times during the last 30 years.
FFL provided several hours of air search and reconnaissance last fall during our search for hunter Richard Kothanek, who is still missing in the Meadow Creek area.
FFL also coordinates an Avalanche Deployment Program (ADP) in which a FFL airship will drop the two flight nurses normally on board, fly to one of several Summit County ski areas, pick up an avalanche technician, dog handler and trained avalanche dog and fly them to the scene of an avalanche accident. Their on-scene response time could be hours faster than a ground-based rescue. Additionally, they have the capability of flying with a suspended, long range beacon receiver for locating buried subjects who have an avalanche beacon.
GCSAR has used the ADP twice to help clear an avalanche zone, verifying that there were no subjects buried. Besides the obvious benefit to someone buried in an avalanche, the program relieves rescue teams from some of the risks involved in avalanche rescue.
Since search and rescue teams in Colorado do not charge for rescue, having to pay for helicopter service is cost prohibitive. Flight for Life is providing a huge benefit to all of Colorado by providing helicopter support for volunteer search and rescue teams.
Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 35 years. He can be reached by email at gfoley@grandcountySAR.com. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com or on Facebook/GCSAR.
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