Air-med crew prepares for winter survival

Bright blue skies and temperatures just above freezing-the weather was beautiful Saturday as members of the U air-med team headed out onto Jordanelle Reservoir for their annual winter training program.

Crewmembers came to learn orienteering with a Global Positioning System, avalanche safety, emergency shutdown procedures for the helicopters and how to survive if caught out in the snow.

“Hopefully we’ll never have to use this,” said Ken Matthews, program director. “We’ve had times where we’ve had to set down because of weather or mechanics. The teams start getting ready for survival. Fortunately we were able to [maneuver] back into the aircraft.”

But the team could very easily have to use their winter survival skills. During ski season they keep an aircraft stationed at Park City, within easy distance of the ski resorts. It is fairly common for them to fly skiers with broken legs and serious head injuries off the mountain.

Besides learning crucial winter survival techniques, the winter skills program was about teamwork, and “making sure you’re comfortable with the people you’re with,” said Wayne Edginton, chief flight paramedic.

Every air-med crew always has a pilot, a flight nurse, a flight paramedic and, if needed, a respiratory therapist. Edginton describes this as the perfect combination.

“The nurses have the ICU experience, while the paramedics have the street experience,” he said.

Several community members, including Alan Gridal, a member of Salt Lake City’s sheriff’s department and a volunteer for the Utah Forecast Center, helped teach the air-med crews winter skills.

“[It’s] good advertising, good public relations. It allows us to work with other outfits,” said Jim Howe, flight nurse and training coordinator for the winter skills program.

The flight crew started off the morning learning how to use a GPS from Alan Gridal. Air-med pilots routinely land their aircraft using only a set of GPS coordinates, but the rest of the crew was not quite as familiar with the system. Gridal focused on being able to read the GPS so that if a helicopter became stranded, the crew could radio their location to rescuers.

Crewmembers also learned some basic avalanche recovery skills: how to probe for victims and how to use a transceiver to trace signals from skiers’ avalanche beacons.

Sweeping transceivers in front of them, crewmembers walked over a snowfield where avalanche beacons were buried. The transceiver would read the distance from the beacon and searchers had to keep sweeping until they could dig it out of the snow.

Even though it is not air-med’s responsibility to search for avalanche victims, every helicopter carries an avalanche probe, a shovel and a transceiver just in case.

“The scenario for us is that you have an avalanche and there’s people buried. We need to know how to help search,” Matthews said.

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