Backcountry Zero sat down with Teton County Search and Rescue Volunteer and Medical Director, Dr. AJ Wheeler, to find out more about when you should call search and rescue, what information you will need to provide, how long a response usually takes and more. Listen to a recording of our conversation or read a transcript of the conversation below.
Backcountry Zero: Who should you call if you need search and rescue?
AJ: The only way to get in touch with search and rescue is to call 911 and you will get the sheriff’s office dispatch. You tell them the nature of your emergency and if you are in the backcountry they will connect you with someone from search and rescue.
Backcountry Zero: What if you don’t have cell service?
AJ: If you don’t have voice service it’s important to know that you can text 911 in Teton County. So sometimes if you only have one bar of service and you can’t make a voice call you may be able to make text contact. Text 911 will probably be slower than a voice call but it’s a good contact. If there is no cell service at all you have to take stock of the emergency and decide on a plan of action. If the individual that is injured can not move at all you’re going to have to send somebody for help. Depending upon your location you may be able to get cell service by moving up or down the trail or up or down one of the geographical features close to you or hiking out to a trailhead.
Backcountry Zero: When is it appropriate to call search and rescue?
AJ: Search and rescue operates in a lot of different ways for people. We can help both lost and injured people. From a medical standpoint, anytime someone is having an airway or breathing problem or a circulatory problem such as uncontrolled bleeding it’s always appropriate to call search and rescue immediately for those kinds of problems. The other things we want to consider are if you are immobile, you can’t walk and you are going to need someone to help you get out that’s another time to call search and rescue. And time of day does make a big difference as well. If you get injured early in the day and are trying to get yourself out but not making progress fast enough and evening is coming on, it is definitely time to call search and rescue. We are limited in our response after dark. We cannot use helicopters after sunset so if you wait until it’s dark to call us it’s going to be a much longer response.
Backcountry Zero: What if I’m off-route and I don’t know how to handle the situation? Is search and rescue able to offer any instruction or advice over the phone as opposed to sending people into the field?
AJ: Yes. We’re not a guide service but yes - when people are lost, off trail or don’t know where they are we can provide some assistance in locating them. Definitely if people are off trail in terrain that is dangerous we can help get them out of that terrain as well.
Backcountry Zero: What information will I need to provide search and rescue when I call in an emergency?
AJ: When you call into dispatch at 911 the dispatcher is always going to collect your name and contact information first so that if for some reason we lose connection with you we have some chance of getting back in touch with you. And then we really need to know the nature of the emergency right up front, whether it is just lost, a medical emergency or injury. Other things that are really helpful for us are the number of people in your party, your geographic location and any landmarks close by. Also the description of the clothing your party is wearing, especially if we wind up responding by air. It’s amazing how many people are out in the backcountry and everybody feels the need to wave at the helicopter so it can be very difficult to identify the people we are actually looking for. If you are calling from the backcountry we also want to know what the terrain around you is like - is there a big open meadow near you where a helicopter could land? Those kinds of things will help determine what the best response to your emergency will be.
Backcountry Zero: How long should I expect it to take for search and rescue to respond?
AJ: Once the call comes into dispatch, dispatch will page the SAR board, which is a group of 6 -7 experienced SAR members, and we will call in and have a conference call. It’s usually pretty brief - it only takes a couple of minutes to gather the information we need. You may be re-contacted by a member of that SAR board for more information and then if it’s appropriate we will page the team. The team will either respond to the search and rescue hangar in town to get whatever gear we need and then we will need to respond to wherever you are, which is the backcountry if we’re coming to help you. There are some instances where team members can respond directly to the incident. It takes us usually a half hour to 45 minutest to have people at the hangar getting gear and be leaving the hangar in route to where ever we’re going. And then you have to figure it’s going to take several hours to hike anywhere with the heavy packs and gear that we need carry to help an individual get out. So we’re looking at definitely a several hour response time. And helicopter response is definitely not the norm for search and rescue. We’re much more likely to respond with a ground crew.
Backcountry Zero: How should a person or group prepare for search and rescue to arrive? Is there anything they can do to make the scene most useful?
AJ: Well if you’re dealing with an injured individual you want to make sure they are comfortable, that they’re off the ground and insulated with a sleeping pad or mat under them. Make sure they stay warm. And then a term we like to use is ‘be searchable’. We want people to make themselves visible. If you are off the trail try to move away from running water which can make it hard to hear if people are yelling from you. Try not to be hunched down near trees. If you are expecting a helicopter to come, again move away from the trees so you are more visible from the air. At dawn and dusk lights are very helpful, so headlamps are helpful for us. Signal mirrors for air operations are also helpful. Another thing that is really simple is a whistle - it’s amazing how much better the sound of a whistle carries and you can sustain blowing on a whistle much longer than screaming. You should try out the ones that are built into your pack because the mouthpiece on those are very small and when it’s cold it’s hard to use those effectively so you might want to purchase and carry an emergency whistle.
Backcountry Zero: What happens once SAR arrives on the scene?
AJ: Once the team arrives we’re going to introduce ourselves and then it really depends on the nature of the emergency. We’re going to assess how everyone there is doing. If people are cold, tired, hungry we’re going to try and fix those problems. If it’s an injury we’ll address that with whatever medical support we were able to send in. And then we’re going to look at what we have to do to get you out of there. Sometimes in the summer that’’s a wheeled litter where we load somebody up and are able to wheel them down the trail. Other times it will be a helicopter response. We do have the capability to respond with ATVs in the appropriate locations and we do have some specialized rescue techniques we can use for very technical terrain, like short haul. But again those aren’t the norm. Typically we are going to try and walk somebody out or use the wheeled litter to get them down the trail.