October 8, 2013

Short-Haul Evacuation In BSP

On Monday, July 1, 2013, we issued the following press release: 

July 1, 2013
Contact Person: Park Director Jensen Bissell
(207) 723-9500
(207) 356-2318
Injured Hiker Evacuated from the Hunt Trail in Baxter State Park
A 62 year old hiker from Texas was air lifted from a mountain peak in Baxter State Park on Monday afternoon after suffering an upper and lower body injuries from a large rock falling on him.
Park rangers were alerted to a possible injury around noon on Monday from a 911 call from a concerned hiker and a ranger was dispatched from Katahdin Stream Campground to look for the injured hiker. 
After an assessment by a Park Ranger on the scene, Ned Hamara was transported by a Maine Forest Service helicopter to Caribou Pit in Baxter State Park.  The Forest Service utilized a short-haul system to extract the injured hiker from the approximately 3,900’ elevation and transport him to the open area of Caribou Pit where he was transferred to a waiting ambulance for transport to Millinocket Regional Hospital for treatment shortly after 4:00 pm. 
End Release


This press release was by design a very compressed version of what had been a complex and effective evacuation of an injured hiker from steep, rocky and timbered terrain.  It was also the first “short-haul” rescue ever implemented in Baxter State Park.  It will almost certainly not be the last.

Short-haul rescue refers to the technique of using a fixed length of line attached to a helicopter to land a crew member with medical training to perform an assessment on an injured or ill hiker and prepare the patient for evacuation and then to evacuate the patient and crew member and fly both to the nearest access point for advanced life support (ALS).

 Photos courtesy Maine Forest Service           

Short-haul rescue provides the opportunity for the relatively rapid access of medical support to a patient or patients located in very steep, rocky or forested terrain where the landing of a helicopter is not an option.  Unless the helicopter is equipped with a winch capable of raising and lowering a crew member and patient from an access door, rescuers only option in this terrain is to secure the patient in a litter and carry them either down and out, or up to an area where a helicopter can land.

The Maine Forest Service has worked very effectively and professionally to add the short-haul technique to the skill sets of MFS helicopter crews and pilots.  Thanks to the commitment of this agency, the Park now can include an important and life-saving option to rescue and evacuation considerations in the Park.

While the photos above depict the flight segments of the short haul system, in real life – in the trees, steep terrain and available weather and beneath a powerful rotor driven aircraft– a short haul evacuation is a noisy and raucous event requiring cool heads, steady hands and good communication.  The short haul evacuation in July was filmed by a Park hiker and is a testament to the careful training and professional approach of everyone involved.  The video can be viewed here:

Any evacuation from backcountry areas, particularly the steep, rocky and remote areas common to the wilderness zone of Baxter State Park includes some elements of risk.  Litter-carry evacuation efforts in high elevation areas of the Park often involve more than 40 people. In these evacuation operations, it is common for people to focus on the risks to the patient, but risk elements extend to all participants and injuries to rescuers working on an evacuation or a search can and do occur.  Evacuation team leaders work hard to maintain a safe workplace and a culture of safety on the rescue site during evacuation operations.

Helicopter evacuations also involve risk.  Helicopters are complex machines and mountain rescue operations require pilots to maneuver helicopters near or over rough and variable terrain in often strong and changeable winds.

The specific variables in each rescue, including patient condition and trending, current and forecasted weather, available ground personnel and the relative risks of existing evacuation options are carefully weighed by the incident commander before committing to an evacuation plan.

Of course the safest evacuation is the one that doesn’t happen.  That’s why our efforts to encourage hikers to hike safely, be prepared for the conditions, make good decisions on the trail, and set a turn-around time and stick to it.  We will always hope for the best, but when things go badly wrong on Katahdin, short-haul evacuation is a great tool to have!

Patient lands at Caribou Pit near a waiting ambulance