Much has been written about how to deal with emergencies when out in the wilds, far from help, but I have found much of what is written is based on limited knowledge of how things actually go down. In my many years of mountain rescue, I have picked up some common problems that occur time and again when people are dealing with a situation in the mountains. Here are some tips to help get you through the situation.
It takes time
For rescues in remote areas of mountains or other wilderness areas, it will take some time until help can get to you. In the case of a low-key operation near to civilisation this may be less than an hour. In the case when a large powerful helicopter is needed, at least two or more hours or longer will go past before help arrives. If the weather is bad, this can be even longer as a rescue team has to drive to road-head and then hike to the scene. The time from when a call for help is made, until some help arrives, can be a very frustrating time for the people involved and the people left with a patient need to keep themselves occupied during this time. Rescue teams seldom can simply leave straight away, as planning needs to be done, equipment collected and teams briefed. Mountain rescues need to be planned well and rushing decisions does not help the patients well being. Contrary to how it is shown in Hollywood movies, helicopter crews are not standing about just waiting for a call. Before aircraft can get airborne, there is usually paperwork and planning that takes place and this takes time.
Understand there are usually two types of situations
You have to realise that in most incidents in the mountains, a patient falls into one of two situations. Firstly, they are either in an extremely serious situation where immediate intervention is needed. Or secondly, they may have a serious injury but are unlikely to die from it in the next few hours. If they are in the first type of situation, so they have either stopped breathing, have no pulse (or both) or they are pouring blood from a major artery, in theses cases do not phone for help immediately. The patient’s survival rests on them being attended to right there and then and basic first aid skills are needed. Once they are out of immediate danger (pulse and breathing restored or bleeding stopped) then think about how to sort out a rescue. If their injury is serious, but the patient is not likely to die in the next a few hours, then take time to do First Aid to the best of one’s ability and then plan how to go about getting help.
Do it once
Make the call for rescue and once one is happy that mountain rescue has been contacted, realise the “wheels have started to turn”. Do not then make more calls to other agencies in the hope that more is better. Having multiple rescue agencies trying to do the same operation is wasteful and time consuming. Secondly, do not allow other members of the party to contact friends, relatives and other rescue agencies. Friends and relatives then also start phoning for rescue, which just compounds the muddle up as multiple rescues start to take place.
Calling it in
To identify where you are located, a verbal description is usually better than a set of GPS co-ordinates. The reason being is that the verbal description tells a rescue team about the terrain and paints a better picture of what is going on. For example, “the patient is approximately 700m upstream of Tseke hut and in the river boulders” says a lot more than a set of numbers. The GPS co-ordinates are sometimes wrong or given in a version that then needs to be changed into a different format for an aircraft’s navigation system. In that conversion mistakes are frequently made and aircraft are dispatched to the wrong place. Just 300m out and it can end up in the wrong valley!
When an aircraft is inbound to a rescue scene, people on the ground are actually very hard to see and appear very small in a huge landscape. Making your location known is very important with bright colours of clothing and tents etc. But the two best ways of showing yourself is when the aircraft is visible and heading in the general direction, use the flash of a camera or cell phone to show the position. Aircrew can easily see a camera flash from considerable distances, especially in low light or shadowy areas. A small fire with lots of smoke is also a good indicator and is seen easily and gives the aircrew valuable information of wind direction and speed.