Life Flight practices for another summer of hoist rescues

Published: Monday, May 5 2014 2:15 p.m. MDT

PARLEYS CANYON — With summer on the doorstep, people are gearing up for hiking, biking and climbing in the mountains.

Likewise, search and rescue teams are also preparing themselves for what could be another busy summer.

"During the spring into fall is our busy time of the year. More people are out recreating. Our biggest type of call that we go on is a fall," said Paris Napoli, lead paramedic for Intermountain Healthcare's Life Flight helicopter program.

"Whatever you can imagine, happens. We see it — horseback riders, four-wheelers, hikers that get distressed or injured, climbers," added Life Flight hoist specialist Mike Quinones.

The red and white twin-engine Agusta helicopters built specifically for high altitude operations are known throughout the state not only for quickly transporting people in serious need of medical attention, but also for assisting other agencies with search and rescue operations. Life Flight is the only civilian company in the United States that has been authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to use hoist rescues.

To keep its FAA certification, Life Flight must conduct several hours of training twice a year. On Monday, Life Flight pilots and paramedics along with search and rescue crew members from several sheriff's offices from across the state met at picturesque Little Dell Reservoir to keep its certification up to date.

The group practiced several types of drills, including "in and outs," where a paramedic or search member is lowered by the hoist from the helicopter to the ground and then picked up. The group also practiced transporting injured recreationists from an area.

Typically, search and rescue crews will guide lost hikers the rest of the way down a mountain or strap them onto an ATV and help them down. But, between a dozen and 18 times a year, Life Flight will be called to hoist a person out of a precarious situation.

Napoli said a hoist operation is typically used when a patient is in critical need of medical attention and in an area that would otherwise take search and rescue crews a long time to reach.

"Search and rescue do a great job, but they can only get so far down a hill so fast," he said. "It's sometimes not as easy as where you can strap them on a backboard and drive them somewhere. Sometimes (search and rescue) get into an area where it's going to be hours upon hours to get somebody out, where it would take us 20 minutes to get someone to medical care. It has saved lives."

Napoli said "that golden hour" after a person is injured or suffers a heart attack while hiking is the most critical time for them to receive medical attention.

On Monday, the group practiced lifting injured recreationists out of an area using three methods: a net, a chair-like swing for patients who are the least injured, and a large bag with cushions for the most seriously injured.

Life Flight members say the popular hike to the top of Mount Olympus is a frequent spot for rescues each summer.

"People get up there, get in over their heads, get exhausted. get dehydrated," said Napoli, who noted Life Flight did many of its hoist rescues last year in that area. "They don't know the mountain well enough, they get off the trail. They get into some scary areas up there. They just underestimate that mountain, because it's a tough hike."

The Salt Lake County sheriff's search and rescue team responds to an average of 60 incidents each year. A third of those are for operations in and around Mount Olympus. Unified police have attempted to come up with campaigns during the past two summers to try and educate inexperienced hikers of the dangers of Mount Olympus.

Quinones said it's those sometimes chaotic rescues that make exercises like the one on Monday so important. The goal is to conduct the drills so often that they become second nature.

"It's muscle memory. We try to do it so we don't have to think about it. Because under that environment when it's noisy, and you can't hear anything, obviously, and people become very anxious. So if you have to think about it, sometimes you can make mistakes. If you instinctively do it, it becomes intuitive," he said.

In fact, Quinones said the actual rescue of a hiker can become so second nature, that the adrenaline rush comes more in the searching.

"Getting called to something, you're not sure what's totally going on. Sometimes you get bits and pieces. … It's the search part of it that's unpredictable, and you never know what you're going to see. And once you find it, everything else is just mechanical," he said.

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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