Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Monday, October 17, 2011

High Angle Training

Click on the photos to enlarge.

Yesterday we held a joint high angle rescue training with Wilderness Rescue Team (WRT). "Wilderness," for short, as they are generally known in Maine SAR circles, are one of only a handful of organizations in the great state of Maine that train for and work in mountain rescue.

The way to understand the difference between WRT and other teams in Maine would be to consider the difference between search and rescue operations in woodland and wetland terrain (the kinds of operations that are the great majority of call-outs in Maine), and search and rescue operations in the high rock and ice of a Maine mountain like Mount Katahdin.

Obviously, only a team of trained and experienced mountaineers should be sent up Katahdin to perform a rescue!

But equally obviously, anyone who can read a map, hike safely and perform basic first aid can help a Maine team search a woodland or wetland like the Bangor City Forest searched only yesterday.

The latter can become the former, but not easily, because the process is much the same process that it takes to create a trained mountaineer -- you have to go mountaineering a lot!

An awful lot.

So that makes WRT one of the most committed and active teams in Maine. They have one or two former Unity students as members, I'm proud to say, including Nate, who visited yesterday with his three WRT colleagues, Joe, Jen, and Jake, to help out with our annual high angle rescue familiarization training.

Joe Poulin was the WRT lead trainer. Joe and I sit together on the Maine Association for Search and Rescue statewide committee, and I've worked with him now on SAR problems in Maine for nearly a decade, but this is the first time I'd asked him to come and train our team.

I should have asked long ago.

Joe is an excellent teacher, very animated and intense. The last photo, which I like a lot, shows him in action.

This training is not intended to create fully turned-out mountain rescuers. That's way too much to ask of a training that only lasts a day and only happens once a year. Instead it aims to begin the process of training a tiny handful of our most experienced ground searchers, particularly those who like to climb mountains, up to the much higher standards of fitness and technical knowledge required for mountain rescue personnel. Along the way we can begin to familiarize the rest of our team, particularly the beginners, with the mountain rescue environment.

The most experienced UCSAR members typically go on to federal and state park service, Maine Warden, and other agency jobs that require rescue and evacuation skills, sometimes at the mountain rescue level, and so this day is often the first step on a lifetime of training and experience.

The beginners get to try out some very scary but confidence-building activities. There are lots of cliffs one has to go over in life, metaphorical and otherwise, and it's generally a good thing to begin to learn to conquer fear and terror, if that beginning can happen in a very structured and safe environment.

I've been teaching these skills now for thirty years and I haven't hurt anyone badly yet. There have been quite a few bruises, though, including a few bruised egos.

I've seen strong men reduced to tears by the terror of their first rock climb or rappel.

Our group for yesterday's training included a large number of first year women students, and so inflated egos were not much to be found. The sex ratio made for a very pleasant and cooperative day, compared to others I've experienced, although there was also a bit more reticence and standing around rather than getting stuck in, which is what we encourage.

The best way to learn is to get stuck in.

Our WRT friends made for excellent one-on-one trainers too, so everyone was kept busy most of the time with ample opportunity to get stuck in.

Indeed, since all I had to do was teach rappel and otherwise make myself useful to Joe, I have to say I had a very pleasant day indeed, when usually this training is far too busy for me.

And it was particularly good to see our young Unity College women step up to the plate and learn to go over the edge, or make themselves useful on a rescue "system."

The greatest of thanks to Joe Poulin, Jake, Nate and Jen of Wilderness Rescue Team! Hopefully we can do this again sometime, possibly next fall.

Congratulations to all our students that learned to rappel, and special congratulations to the four that handled the final litter lower exercise.

I'll post more pictures in a day or two. These are just the best ones for now.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

News report from today's rescue

Early season search concludes well

I just spent most of the wee hours helping organize a call-out, as MASAR Duty Officer. There was a search on, at the Bangor City Forest, which sounds like a park or arboretum, but in the routine nature of Maine is actually a small wilderness area, which itself backs on to bigger areas of privately owned wildland.

Our own team was called out, and six Unity students responded this morning. They arrived at the command post just in time to be told that the victim had been located alive.

(I don't have any more details and in fact we are not supposed to post details of Maine searches and rescues on our own team blogs.)

Students that haven't been on a call-out before may be disappointed to be turned around and sent home before they get to go search the woods, but this is in fact the best possible kind of outcome, or one of them:

a) The victim or subject is ALIVE! Need I say more?

b) No more searchers need to be sent out, meaning our searchers are now also safer and less likely to be hurt or injured and can be sent back to their own lives.

I'm always pleased by the responses I get as Duty Officer whenever I have to organize a call-out. I get to call people all over the state and in ones and twos and threes and fours, they get out of beds or up from in front of the TV and start making their way to the incident command post.

Horses and four-wheelers are trailered up for the ride and search dogs are made to climb into cages and kennels placed in the back of SUVs. Bags are packed or grabbed off the shelf, radios and GPS units are grabbed. On big call-outs, and this one was moderately big, scores of people then begin driving, sometimes long, long drives, all leaving their lives for the duration, and making their way to the call-out.

As a veteran, this kind of thing is important to me.

I need to feel like I belong in a society where public service is respected and honored, and where people are willing to contribute their time and energy to the greater good, or, in this case, to come to the aid of someone they don't know in a community far away.

And I get to sit by the phone, as Duty Officer, and help make this small miracle of volunteerism and public service happen.

What an honor.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Old school

My old buddy Gary sent me these. He's the tall dark fellow.

Guess which one is me? Click on the image to enlarge.

Just to remind myself that I was once as young as our first years.

Or almost.

Please note, the litter handling technique circa 1983. Hasn't changed much.

Back to college, up and running

Unity College SAR Team is now officially up and running for the school year.

Students have returned to campus. The educations of the new intake of Conservation Law Enforcement students have begun, with basic map reading and fitness training.

For my part, I get to teach two sections of the map reading and fitness lab. That means that about two dozen students will be hiking Mount Harris with me, twice a week, until hunting season.

The first weekly team meeting will be held soon, and trainings will begin. Students will get email notification of the time and place.

And, of course, we have to be ready for a call-out. Please make sure you have your hasty/ready pack all packed and on hand and ready to go, with flashlights that work, spare clothing that works, trail food you might actually be willing to eat, and so on.

Keep your cell phone charged and switched on.

And remember the Four Rules of Rescue:

1) Rescue is a team game:
2) Nobody gets hurt.
3) One person is in charge at all times.
4) Everyone that goes, comes back together

The Rules expanded:

1) Rescue is a team game: No prima-donnas allowed. If you want to rescue your ego, go show off at the gym. We go together, or not at all.

2) Nobody gets hurt. Obviously, the casualty or victim is likely already hurt or perhaps even dead. That's already one too many. Team leaders and team members must make every effort to make sure that their team stays safe.

3) One person is in charge at all times. Too many voices ruin The Plan. Although that Team leader should listen to his team members.

4) Everyone that goes, comes back together. If you go up the mountain together, you come down the mountain together. If you go in the woods together, you come out of the woods together. If you can't see that last team member in line, you wait until you can. The party goes at the pace of the slowest person.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

BSES student killed by polar bear

I've helped organize two British Schools Exploring Society Expeditions -- Iceland 1985 and Montana 1994. I was pretty sad to hear of this horrible incident.

But polar bears are in trouble and will be getting hungrier and hungrier as summer shore ice retreats from places like Svalbard. Trip flares and rifles won't stop a hungry bear.

I ran expeditions for years in grizzly country without a single serious incident and learned something about bears from a few close calls we had.

My buddies from Montana who used to do wildlife film-crew protection in Alaska thought sawn-off pump-action shotguns a better weapon for grizzly and polar bears. Air horns work well for scaring off bears in the first few minutes, as they approach the camp, and for waking the rest of the group.

And posting sentries around the clock is probably the way to begin to protect the camp.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

New RAF Mountain Rescue webpage

Regular readers will know that I'm a British ex-serviceman and was once part of the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue service. There's an ex-members association, for which I'm co-editor of the annual journal. And now there's a new, updated web page, for those interested, with thousands of excellent photographs, albeit behind a registration firewall.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Moosehead search resolved -- after some delay

Missing Rockwood man’s body found on Moosehead Lake

Posted July 24, 2011, at 10:31 a.m.
Last modified July 24, 2011, at 8:55 p.m.
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ROCKWOOD, Maine — Two female kayakers on Moosehead Lake made a grisly discovery Saturday morning when they came across the body of a man face down and partially floating along the shore.

Game wardens believe the body is that of Rockwood resident James Russell, 51, who was last seen on Sunday, Nov. 14, on Sand Bar Way in Rockwood just before a planned paddle across the lake to Mount Kineo. His green kayak, a paddle and his backpack were found last year floating in the water off Murray Road about two miles from Kineo.

“The body was tentatively identified as Mr. Russell because of the clothing and where he was located,” Edie Smith, director of information for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said Sunday. “The official identification will be made by the medical examiner’s office, which is where his body is now.”

Kayakers Donna Barnes of Brunswick and Susan Townsend of Lisbon Falls discovered the body at around 8:30 a.m., while paddling between Sandbar Island and the mainland.

The man’s body was clothed in a brown hooded sweatshirt, blue jeans, hat and brown hiking boots, which “matches the description of what Mr. Russell was wearing at the time of his disappearance,” Smith said.

Russell had been working on a carpentry project on Sand Bar Way. In addition to his paddling gear, his bicycle also was found after he went missing.

After Russell was reported missing, an aggressive search was conducted by wardens — using sonar boats and airplanes — Unity College Search and Rescue members, Maine Search and Rescue dog teams, Maine Forest Service rangers, members of Russell’s family and friends who scoured Moosehead Lake in Rockwood, Kineo and Farm Island to no avail.

“With Moosehead Lake being over 40 miles long, the search was elongated and unfortunately, the body never located at that time, despite the exhaustive search,” Smith said.

Sgt. Chris Cloutier of the Maine Warden Service, who was assisted by District Ranger Bruce Reed, led the team that recovered the man’s body and tentatively identified it as that of Russell.

The medical examiner, in addition to officially identifying the body, also will determine his cause of death. A representative at the medical examiner’s office said Sunday that no information would be released until Monday at the earliest.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A tandem lower

It wasn't so much that my ego was feeling bruised, but I was just a little concerned that the tandem lower technique I like so much for introducing new trainees to the high angle environment was so thoroughly debunked by the RfR crew (one of yesterday's learning moments -- see previous post).

I hated to feel so stupid, to think I'd been using something so easily discarded, so I went looking for pictures of up-to-date UK technique just to see what they do nowadays.

Here is HRH the Duke of Cambridge, otherwise known as "Wills," on service with RAF Valley MRT just a couple of years ago, using the same system I use. The photos belong to the BBC.

It looks like it has changed little since it first came into being around 1983. It was invented by MR troop and later Chief Instructor Bill Batson and widely disseminated around that year.

It uses three ropes, two main lowering ropes and a safety/belay rope. the two mains are tied more or less directly into the litter/stretcher, and then to the guides/attendants/barrow boys, no need for a bridle. No chest harness, no complicated jiggers.

If, as I supposed based on a 2003 article by Bill in On the Hill: The Journal of RAF Mountain Rescue, the RAFMRT has adopted RfR ideas, then they certainly reverted pronto to older technique when assigned to train his Highness.

I guess if I was trying to stay current in MR systems back in the UK, I would still actually be current.

The one new idea here that I can see is the notion of "vectoring" the mainlines on the edge transition. We never bothered to do that back in the dark ages.

The question would be, why do they still use this system, if as reported by Bill, the RfR ideas were introduced circa 2003?

I might email Bill and try to find out.

Rigging for Rescue

One of our local Maine SAR teams, Mount Desert Island Search and Rescue, organized a Rigging for Rescue seminar for this weekend, and I agreed to attend.

This was a good opportunity for the team, and so someone should take advantage of it. I was available while everyone else was gone for the summer.

So, when the plans for the training were being made last summer, I seized the day and arranged for the fee to be paid and this Friday the day finally arrived and I went to the class, which was held in and just outside of Acadia National Park.

Ordinarily the Unity College Search and Rescue Team is used by the authorities as hasty search and wide area search team, but particularly the latter. We get called rarely but reliably, between two to five times a year, to provide search services to some critical scene, usually under the expert management of the Maine Warden's Service.

(Forty percent of Maine Wardens are Unity College graduates, so one reason the team exists is to begin to prepare these public servants for the very large percentage of their job that is search and rescue.)

But we get generally used as a search team, not a rescue team.

Only once, in my eleven years as faculty advisor to the Unity College SAR Team, have I been personally used on an evacuation of any kind, never mind a high angle rescue evac.

However, our team members have been involved in steep angle rescues on Mt Katahdin or MDI.

Usually they've been up to either park in mufti, climbing or hiking, or on summer trail crew and seconded to the rescue, or some other such circumstances. This might have happened three or four times, that I can remember, but some of the rescues were quite epic. On a couple of occasions I've been pleased to get very good reports back from the authorities about the help our students gave in some dire escapade.

And then our team members of course go on to agencies and other teams and so need to be well-trained.

I would want our graduates to properly represent the college and to be the most help they can be to their new organizations, and some mountain rescue or high angle rescue familiarity, or at the very least, knowledge of the basics of safe evacuation praxis, is going to be needed at most parks and in most settings where our graduates are employed.

So for years now we've included evacuation training in the team's curriculum. I've also managed to run a one-day high angle "familiarization" training most years in the fall.

I call this one-day event a "familiarization" training because I'm under no illusions that it prepares students adequately for serious mountain rescue problems.

Although some are, most students on our team are not mountaineers. They don't know how to lead climb, how to follow, or how to rappel. Many have never climbed at all. The setting is unfamiliar. The mountain rescue environment and equipment is unfamiliar.

Above all, the rescue team command and control system is unfamiliar. Today's teenagers are generally less than, shall we say, practiced in following commands.

With the high turnover we have at the college, indeed at any college, 60-70% of the students who attend this one-day training are new to the team.

So the main point is to begin the process of familiarization.

I think the world might also forgive me if, as a teacher first and foremost any day of the week, I really enjoy any situation that gets students' attention and instills some healthy discipline, and there's nothing quite like the feeling that one might actually fall off a cliff if one doesn't listen carefully for getting a student's attention and instilling discipline.

In these days of video games and cell phones and Facebook and short attention spans, this is almost magical for a teacher, to actually get students focused, alert, and listening.

But if we're to get these great benefits, I need to be properly trained and updated.

My SAR experience is probably too long at this point in time, and in fact I joined my first team, RAF Leeming Mountain Rescue Team, in 1979, back in the days of braided terylene rope, when body belays, classic body rappel, and fallen leader training were still de rigeur.

(We had the "new" gear of perlon/kernmantle, stitcht plates, and figure-eights, but didn't quite trust it yet, so the old techniques were still taught as a back-up. And I suppose, they were probably considered "character-forming.")

I have also been on two American mountain rescue teams, and thought I had learned the basics of American systems.

I was therefore quite unprepared for the main lesson of RfR, which was, for me at least, how woefully out-of-date my mountain rescue skills now are. Although I can see that our one-day training still provided benefits for the students, particularly that minor paying attention thingy, my attempts to teach the technical part of high angle rescue these last few years amount to an exercise in personal nostalgia.

I think I can be at least partly forgiven for this too. My last serious externally-validated mountain rescue training was probably in 1994 in Montana. Since then the small problem of getting a PhD, so I could continue college teaching and research, and the minor difficulties of starting a farm and family, have interfered with my ability to keep up with the rescue world.

In the back of my head, I'm still cogitating. I still wonder if despite all the science obviously used in RfR, some of the older techniques might not still be useful if they get the job done faster and with less complications than some of the ideas I saw on this training, albeit at the expense of risk and more routine shock to equipment.

But it isn't professional, when the world has moved on, to cling to ideas like that, so I'll reserve those thoughts for myself.

Planet to Mick, come in please. Stand by for lesson.

Take home: I learned some new stuff on RfR that we're going to have to put to use in the UCSAR team's training. I also got to hang out on some cool cliffs with a wild and crazy bunch of guys.

But it was also a bit of a shock.

So. OK. I'm a scientist. Negative results can still be good results if the experiment is valid. This course was a success if it taught us how to better plan the team's trainings.

I'd have to say, if I want to keep updated, I'm going to have to devote more time to this. Which, realistically, there probably isn't time to do. The obvious thing to do is to bring in outside help.

We'll have to bring in some other trainers, most likely from one of the several mountain rescue teams we have in Maine.

Thanks to MDISAR and especially Steve Hudson for organizing the course and inviting our attendance.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Big mountain call-outs on the increase?

I have absolutely no statistical data on which to base this thought, so take it with a pinch of salt.

But I think that we're seeing an increase in the number of mountain search and rescues in Maine: call outs calling for mountain training, mountain experience, and mountain gear.

I think that the "normal" kind of search, for hunters and fishermen and kids in the relatively flat, relatively congenial woods of Maine have probably also increased over the years, but more recently the big mountains seem to have have seen more events, and more events calling for mountain rescue training, than before.

An example is this week's call-out for four students on Katahdin, which was a classic mountain rescue much like we might see in Scotland or the Alps.

I saw this same process unfold in Montana in the 1980s and early 1990s. As traditional sporting uses declined, new sports increased, including rock and ice-climbing, backcountry skiing and snowshoeing, and alpine mountaineering. This led to new and different kinds of rescues for the old and fat members of Montana search and rescue teams.

(As an old and fat member of a Maine SAR team, formerly of a Montana team, I'm allowed to say this!)

This was a difficult time for SAR teams in Montana. A mountain rescuer needs to be a good deal more in shape and fit than a traditional flat-land SAR team member, and needs special skills, lots more training, and above all experience. It took a few years, several unnecessary deaths, and the founding of a local Mountain Rescue Association-sponsored team before Montana rescues systems were more equal to the task.

(The Mountain Rescue Association member teams' specialized mountain training may be contrasted to that of the more typical National Association for Search and Rescue teams.)

And when you send flat-landers up the big mountain, they may get hurt and die on the rescue.

Which should never happen because it contradicts Rule 2 of Mick's Four Rules of Rescue:

1) Rescue is a team game:
2) Nobody gets hurt.
3) One person is in charge at all times.
4) Everyone that goes, comes back together

The Rules expanded:

1) Rescue is a team game: No prima-donnas allowed. If you want to rescue your ego, go show off at the gym. We go together, or not at all.

2) Nobody gets hurt. Obviously, the casualty or victim is likely already hurt or perhaps even dead. That's already one too many. Team leaders and team members must make every effort to make sure that their team stays safe.

3) One person is in charge at all times. Too many voices ruin The Plan. Although that Team leader should listen to his team members.

4) Everyone that goes, comes back together. If you go up the mountain together, you come down the mountain together. If you go in the woods together, you come out of the woods together. If you can't see that last team member in line, you wait until you can. The party goes at the pace of the slowest person.