Flight for Life SAR Conference

A conference held in Breckenridge September 14-16 gave local search and rescue members, ski patrollers, and EMS personnel great opportunities for continuing education and skills practice in a mountain setting.  Flight for Life hosted the conference at the Colorado Mountain College campus in Breckenridge.

The weekend began with optional pre-conference workshops in low- and high-angle rope rescue of patients in exposed areas.  In the high-angle rope access course, all were able to rotate through four stations: lowering, belay, patient, and rescuer.  Each station was assigned an instructor for safety and immediate feedback.  A rescuer lowered to the patient, provided first aid care, tied the patient into the main rope system, and both descended to the base of the approximately 70-foot rock wall.  The location was minutes from Frisco and a short hike, yet provided all the exposure and difficulty needed on a beautiful fall afternoon.  Participants came prepared with climbing gear, boots, and packs, but loaner gear was available.  Previous climbing experience was helpful, but rescue experience wasn’t necessary.

Saturday morning revealed about 30 attendees for the conference.  Flight for Life staff introduced Charley Shimanski as the keynote speaker.  Mr. Shimanski is the current senior VP of the American Red Cross disaster services.  He left Colorado after 27 years with Alpine Rescue and is the past president of the Mountain Rescue Association.  The talk covered several major disaster responses worldwide in the past few years including Haiti and Joplin, MO.  One striking fact was that, despite large-scale responses by well-trained teams, the majority of rescues are made by local people helping neighbors.  This is primarily due to fast access to the scene.

Remaining topics for the morning were a case review of a climber rescue on the Sawtooth ridge between Mts. Bierstadt and Evans in June 2012; head and neck injury management, finding balance between patient/rescuer safety, time, and adequate patient care; and wilderness trauma transport decisions.  Incidents from Colorado and New Mexico illustrated the key points.  The group was split for afternoon skills sessions on difficult airways, head and neck stabilization, trauma patient care, and bleeding and wound management.  Stations reinforced teamwork and decision-making while rotating groups in an efficient manner.  The day closed with a lively dinner at the Salt Creek Steakhouse in Breckenridge.

Flight for Life

Flight for Life crew member explains flight procedures. Photo by A Shambarger.

Kevin Kelble, Summit County Flight for Life paramedic, began Sunday’s session with an overview of helicopter safety, capabilities, and landing zones.  The FFL Lift Ticket program allows limited SAR and ski patrol personnel to be flown into search or rescue areas with difficult or time-dependent access.  Avalanche searches can also be expedited by FFL with an external beacon receiver.  Outside, we were briefed on operating around and in the Lifeguard II helicopter and received our Lift Ticket cards.  Annual refreshers are required.


Grand County SAR dog Taz ready for take off in Lifeguard II. Photo by A Shambarger.

Mock Rescue

Team briefing for mock rescue. Photo by A Shambarger.








The conference culminated with a mock rescue on Swan Mountain of climbers near a campground.  Two teams independently accessed their patients, performed triage and immediate first aid, constructed lowering rope systems, set up landing zones, and evacuated the most critical patient to the waiting helicopter.  The diverse skill sets within teams allowed members to use the skills they were most comfortable with to contribute to the rescue.  It was a challenging environment to put all we had learned to the test.

The quality and reasonable cost of this conference made it well worth the time invested.  This was the second edition of the FFL SAR conference in Breckenridge, with the hopes of keeping it an annual event.  Participation by anyone interested or working in wilderness medicine, ski patrol, and search and rescue is encouraged.


More info on Flight for Life, the Colorado Mountain College wilderness EMS program, and the conference:



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