Rescue Practice - Good/Bad?

Posted on Jan 13, 2014

My headline may seem a bit provocative. Of course practicing your companion rescue skills is a good, indeed a neccessary thing you say! You'll be happy top know that I agree. Just having learned companion rescue is not enough. These skills need to be practiced with regularity if you want them to be really effective when it matters.

But there are a lot of ways to practice these skills and some are much better than others in making you effective should you ever have to use these skills for real. And goodness knows you want to be good at this should you ever have to use it for real (I speak from experience on this one).

The bad version of practice is the one where someone hides a transceiver a few centimeters under the snow withing range of the person searching. The person doing the search turns their transceiver to receive, gets a signal immediately and then quickly hones in on the barely buried transceiver and has no trouble at all finding it thus assuming that they've got the skillls dialed.

But what really has the person in the above example practiced? They turned one transceiver from sending to receiving and they did just the easieast part of a transciever search (the secondary or coarse search). Really they practiced two of the easiest skills and nothing else.

Real companion rescue is a much more complex animal than just a coarse transceiver search. It typically involves groups of people who have to communicate effectively and organize themselves to be effective. It requires that someone takes charge and delegates tasks. It is critical that a concious deicision is made about whether to initiate a rescue or not (remember Sparwood?). It includes assessing available information such as a last seen point and visual clues. it involves having do a primary (singnal) search before you even get a signal from a buried transceiver. It requires further coordination and communication to make sure that resources are applied as efficiently as possible (when a fine search with a transceiver is complete is there an assembled probe at hand or did that get overlooked?). And good practice involves real probing for real objects that are buried at realistic depths in the snow. FInally, complete rescue practice involves practicing digging because there are a whole set of skills and practice associated with this that have the potential to dramatically change the outcomes of a real rescue.

So good practice is much more than a short transceiver search. The best practice involves groups of people enacting realistic scenarios that have as much detail designed into them as possible so that you give yourself as many chances as possible to make mistakes which become fantastic learning opportunities. You may not be surprised to hear that these learning opportunities more often than not, are not around transceiver skills. More likley they will be lessons in things like leadership, group management, communication, allocation of resources, fine search technique, probing and shoveling.

Here are some tips for making really good companion rescue practices:

1) Always set up realistic scenariios and force yourself to enact them from start to finish following all of the steps through.

2) Practice carrying a companion rescue reference card and make it part of your rescue response to pull out that card and use it as your guide through the entire rescue.

3) If you have enough people, include actors playing distressed, non buried victims in your scenarios. It doesn't take an acadamey performance to quickly amp up the urgency and tension creating yet more learing opportunities.

4) Don't skip over important steps like deciding if it is safe to even initiate a rescue and checking for visual clues.

5) Have more than one "victim" buried. The goal here is not neccessarily to set up complex multible burial transceiver searches, in fact these are quite rare in recreational acccidents. Rather the goal is to stretch the resources of the searchers so that they have to get smart about how they allocate their resources (poeple). So bury the transceivers far apart to keep the transceiver searching simple but still stretching resources.

6) Have everyone travelling on their normal mode of transport with all their rescue gear int thier pack on their back (no pre assembled shovels and probes!)

7) Bury transciers deep (at least a metre) so that fine transceiver search, probing and shoveling are all real. Bury inside objects that feel like people (packs work well)

8) Have well structured debrief sessions after each scenario to maximize the learning.

I hope that this information is of value and that if you are stoked to get out into the snow that we've finally received you are asking yourself "are my companion rescue skills up to scratch" and are planning some good practice with some friends very soon.

See you out there,

Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides.