Foley: Critical Incident Stress |

Foley: Critical Incident Stress

Greg Foley
Mountain Rescue

Over a period of a few weeks Grand County Search and Rescue has had a series of difficult missions. These missions weren’t difficult because of technical complications, arduous terrain or complex logistics. They were difficult because of the psychological toll exacted against some team members.

Missions that involve high risk to rescuer safety, life threatening medical emergencies and deceased subjects can adversely affect the health and well-being of our volunteers. These types of missions may be what is called a critical incident.

“A critical incident is defined as any event that has a stressful impact sufficient enough to overwhelm the usually effective coping skills of an individual. Critical incidents are abrupt, powerful events that fall outside the range of ordinary human experiences.”

Many of us have experienced a critical incident – the sudden death of a friend or loved one, being involved in a car accident or witnessing a violent crime. For emergency medical professionals, law enforcement, deployed military and firefighters critical incidents can be common. With experience and training, critical incident stress can be mitigated, compartmentalized and put aside. Our brain does amazing things to resolve stress.

For mountain rescue professionals, these critical incidents are not so common. As volunteers, our members come from all walks of life, and don’t necessarily have the training, coping skills and resilience that is required to resolve the psychological issues that accompany critical incidents when they do occur.

As we recruit new members in we let them know that along with the opportunity to save lives they will see some nasty injuries, put themselves in risky situations and, sooner or later, participate in a body recovery. But, until someone is actually involved in a critical incident, it is hard to tell how they will react.

Our recent missions include two rescues in avalanche terrain when avalanche conditions were rated “Considerable”, one involved a subject with a dislocated hip which made the evacuation difficult because his leg wouldn’t fit in the litter.

A person was buried by an avalanche in First Creek. We stood down while in route after the party self-rescued.

We had a dual injury snowmobile accident that required two helicopters. One patient had a shattered femur, the other was buried under the snowmobile with multiple rib fractures and difficulty breathing. Another snowmobile accident also resulted in a broken femur.

GCSAR assisted with two body recoveries in January. The apparent suicide off-trail at the YMCA was a straightforward mission, but some of the details at the scene were difficult to understand and process.

The most traumatic incident was the search in Grand Lake for Bill Schade, an elderly local affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Some of our members knew Mr. Schade or were associated with family members. After an unsuccessful search effort on Saturday evening, Mr. Schade was found deceased early Sunday on the shore of Shadow Mountain Reservoir in an area that had been searched repeatedly.

One way to deal with critical incident stress is to have a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) as soon as possible after the incident. A CISD is a structured, facilitator led group session that helps individuals process the residual psychological effects of a critical incident. With the cooperation of Sheriff Schroetlin, 15 of our members participated in a CISD last week facilitated by Dr. Shawn Knadler, a psychologist specializing in law enforcement and public safety psychology.

During the session we were encouraged to discuss incident facts, describe individual experiences and share stress related reactions, behavior and coping mechanisms. Dr. Knadler educated us on critical incident stress, common stress reactions and stress management. We discussed how to protect ourselves and our teammates after a critical incident by noticing deviations from normal behavior, and addressing them promptly.

Critical incident stress is a normal reaction to difficult traumatic situations. Most people are able to process the experience and put the stressful parts aside in a few hours or days. If someone is unable to do that, chronic stress can have a detrimental effect on many aspects of their life.

Some of our volunteers have yet to experience a critical incident, others have had the experience either through mountain rescue or other life experiences. Having the tools available to recognize and correct stress issues helps us be a stronger team.

Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 36 years. He can be reached by email at The GCSAR website can be found at or on Facebook/GCSAR.

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