Mountain Rescue: When the rubber hits the road
Mountain Rescue is a very specialized subdivision in the world of search and rescue, which includes an array of services from urban search and rescue, to fire rescue to combat search and rescue. The specialization in search and rescue for individuals and organizations depends on several factors including terrain, techniques and the need for search and rescue in a particular area.
There is a lot of overlap between specialties. Fire rescue, mountain rescue and cave rescue share many technical rigging skill sets. Urban search and wilderness search tactics are very similar. All search and rescue organizations are made up of individual rescuers who have been trained and even certified in certain skill sets – emergency medical technician, firefighter, avalanche technician, search manager. But when the rubber hits the road, how these individual assets dovetail into a unified, effective resource is what really counts.
As members of the Mountain Rescue Association (MRA), Grand County Search and Rescue (GCSAR) is accredited as a mountain rescue team by a group of our peers from other mountain rescue teams every five years. The accreditation process, which evaluates the competence of a rescue team, not the individuals that make up the team, requires each organization to pass five exercises or scenarios that are presented by peer group evaluators.
We are tested on wilderness search, high angle evacuation, low angle evacuation, winter technical evacuation and avalanche search. There are about 60 teams in the U.S. that are accredited by the MRA. GCSAR was last accredited in 2014.
This last weekend several members of GCSAR traveled to Castle Rock to serve as evaluators for Douglas County Search and Rescue. On Saturday, DCSAR demonstrated their technical rock and search skills at Castlewood Canyon. On Sunday, the snow exercises were held at Berthoud Pass. In May, we will help to evaluate the Evergreen-based Alpine Rescue Team.
So is this a rubber-stamp process? Do teams fail the evaluation? What happens then? Let me start off by stating that there are many competent mountain rescue teams that choose not to join the MRA. Not having the MRA accreditation does not mean that a team is below grade, only that they have not demonstrated that capability to an accrediting organization.
When GCSAR first accredited in 1995, it took three tries over two years. Since then, until last year, we had never passed on the first attempt at our five year evaluation. It’s a rigorous, full-team test that requires extensive training on skill sets that are not always common practice. Our nemesis has been high angle evacuation – we don’t do many vertical rock rescues because of our terrain, we don’t have an abundance of technical climbers on our team. Still, as an MRA team, we are expected to be proficient.
When teams have problems with the scenarios, a retest is scheduled. Fine tuning team skills, directed training and increased focus will usually result in success.
Besides providing an objective team evaluation and the accreditation required for full membership in the MRA, the weekend gives regional teams an opportunity to share techniques, safety considerations and new technology. By working together to evaluate each other, teams gain respect and trust. When we are called upon to work together across county or even state lines this competency based knowledge enables a seamless integration that provides a large scale mountain rescue capability.
For example, during our search for hunter Richard Kothanek last fall near Tabernash, we called upon teams from our neighboring counties for trained searchers. Six of our sister MRA teams sent “ground pounders” that we could send out to search difficult, snow covered terrain, knowing up front that their capability in search techniques and tactics would provide solid results.
“Having a nationally accredited mountain search and rescue team, along with the extensive knowledge of our local volunteers, puts Grand County at the forefront when lives are at risk and time is of the essence,” said Sheriff Brett Schroetlin.
GCSAR is proud to be a member of the MRA. We think the extra effort is worth it when it comes down to saving lives.
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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