Sunday, May 22, 2011

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.

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