Coordinated response: Snowmachine club, emergency agency personnel practice rescue scenarios

Posted: Friday, April 02, 2010

The scene looked grim.

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Emergency responders from several different organizations assist mock victim Mattie Cobb of Ninilchik during a snowmachine crash scenario in the Caribou Hills last Saturday. The scenario was one of a three-part drill to practice emergency responses in remote areas.

Gary Anderson, riding his snowmachine in the Caribou Hills, had just rounded a corner when he noticed another machine wrapped around a tree.

Not far from it was a man holding his arm, and with a wincing look on his face that clearly indicated he was in pain. Worse still, behind the man a young girl was laid out on the ground, twisted and not moving.

It was clear there had been an accident, but being miles from the nearest road, and even farther from a town or hospital, every minute could mean the difference between life and death.

This was the scenario last Saturday, and while it was a mock incident -- one of a three-part drill to practice emergency responses in remote areas -- this situation and the others portrayed can often be all to real in the Caribou Hills.

"There's so many people up there on any given weekend -- typically 2,500 on New Year's alone, so the potential for someone to be lost or hurt is very high," said Rick Northey, a member of the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers snowmachine club and one of the organizers of the event.

"We've had some nasty crashes up here, and last year there was also a fatality," Northey said, referring to Bryan W. Farrow, 47, of Homer, who died about 1.5 miles west of Caribou Lake last April after -- it is believed -- he attempted to walk out of the hills when his snowmachine broke down or got stuck.

Saturday's drill was a multi-agency effort involving the Cabin Hoppers, the Homer-based Snowmads snowmachine club, Central Emergency Services, Alaska State Troopers, LifeMed Alaska, Ninilchik Emergency Services, Kachemek Emergency Services, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and dispatchers from the borough's Office of Emergency Management.

"The goal is for all of these agencies to work together, to do these drills and get to know each other," Northey said.

"But, is it also about these agencies seeing how these snowmachine clubs can help," he added. "We know this area, we ride in it and have cabins in it. Whereas some of these agencies have people rotating through that may not be from this area, so they may not know their way around the hills or the high country."

Northey's statements bring to light a truth many who have ventured into the Caribou Hills could remember about their first time: even with a map, the area can be confusing to navigate due to the shear number of trails, many of which cross each other or double back on themselves, and only a few of which have identification markers.

That is changing though, in an effort to prevent riders from losing their bearings, and to aid responders should someone become lost or hurt.

"We're trying to make is safer. The Cabin Hoppers just purchased $2,000 worth of signs, so major intersections will have signs as of this summer," Northey said. "We'll also be doing color-coding of the trails and re-doing road signs and stop signs where trails intersect with roads."

However, even with all the signs and markers, people can still get 30 to 40 or more miles off the road system, up into the mostly featureless landscape of the high country area above treeline.

"People can get lost, break down, get injured -- so we have to be prepared," Northey said.

The response to the first drill last Saturday ran smoothly. Anderson, after arriving on the accident scene, called in the emergency as if it were real to dispatchers who were part of the drill. He also called in other Cabin Hoppers.

The victims were kept company, and the trails to and from the scene were blocked off to allow easier access for the emergency response personnel, which came in an ambulance via the road system to the end of Oil Well Road.

They, and their rescue equipment, were then transported to the scene by Cabin Hoppers on snowmachines with a rescue sled in tow. A LifeMed helicopter was also called in and landed at the third gravel pad at the end of Oil Well Road, to wait for the patients to be transported out.

"It went off really well," Northey said. "The response team got into the field in a really timely manner."

After the first drill, a real emergency -- a head-on collision between two snowmachiners in the Deshka River area -- resulted in the LifeMed helicopter being called away, so the last two drills were done strictly with snowmachines, a rescue sled and human cooperation.

"The helicopter was called off for a real incident, so while we were sad it couldn't participate in all the scenarios, we understood and were happy for what we learned from having it for the first scenario," Northey said.

For the second scenario, a snowmachiner rider drove off of a 20-foot cliff in the high country area. The third scenario again involved two riders, but this time the situation was supposed to be two lost snowmachiners, one of whom was hypothermic. This scenario took place near Trophy Lake.

"We learned a lot from each one we did," Northey said.

Overall, he added, the response times and care given to the victims were all successful. Northey said the only aspects of the drills that needed some polishing up were related to communication.

The primary means of communication was cell phones and line-of-sight radios, the latter of which in particular proved a little too weak over such a large area with such diverse changes in elevation. This complicated first-responders abilities to give updates on their victims or ask for additional support.

"Also, one of the downfalls of using so many agencies is coordinating different radios and frequencies. But, we've identified these communication problems, so now we're working on them," Northey said.

More than 70 people participated in the multi-agency drill, and each gave a critique of the day at the end. Northey said based on the responses and the need for this type of drill, he would like to see this event become an annual one, and broaden it out to include even more rescue-related agencies, such as possibly Central Peninsula Hospital, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Civil Air Patrol.

"It's still evolving," Northey said, "and its something we want to keep working toward, because it nice to train for something like this before it really happens."

Joseph Robertia can be reached at

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