Blade Runners

These professionals take emergency care to new heights.

Injury-free days on the slopes are few and far between. To some extent, mishaps just go with the terrain when millions of skiers per season, people of all ages and skill levels, are turned loose on snow and ice at high altitudes with boards strapped to their feet. It doesn’t help that snow has a tendency to shift or that trail conditions can change hourly.

From a safety professional’s perspective, the recreational mix that takes place on America’s mountains for roughly half of every year might seem to provide the ingredients for a good, six-month-long migraine. Yet the men and women charged with keeping track of that shifting snow and responding with immediate care when incidents occur say their jobs are uplifting in ways that have nothing to do with the on-site gondolas and T-bar pulls.

The National Ski Patrol, a federally chartered nonprofit association now celebrating its 70th year, says it represents 98 percent of the patrollers in the United States. NSP Executive Director Tim White notes that, of the association’s 27,000 members, a full 24,000 are volunteers who, for often little remuneration, take it upon themselves to complete extensive training and then give of their time for the opportunity to join their local team and serve at sites across the country, virtually anywhere there’s a chair lift. “If it’s a ski area, then it has patrollers. And there is a shack somewhere on the hill, and they’re in it waiting to be called,” he says.

The Hills Have Eyes
Before they ever make it to that shack on the hill, patrollers have to complete the association’s Outdoor Emergency Care training program, essentially an 80- to 100- hour EMT education focused on outdoor environments, followed by additional skills training at their individual “hills” or work sites. NSP also requires the completion of refresher courses every year.

“We do a lot of training. In fact, we never stop training,” says Craig Simson, assistant patrol director at Keystone Resort in Colorado. “Every week we have a different focus.” One week it might be avalanche training, detailing the finer points of skiing with the explosives necessary for mitigating natural slides that could occur in avalanche-prone areas; other weeks might focus on what to do in the unlikely event of a chair lift breaking, or other rescue and recovery techniques.

“Most people don’t understand the extent of what we do,” Simson says. “Our largest priority is medical response—that is, in fact, the beginning of the whole thing—but we’re also basically the police out there, enforcing the Ski Safety Act and skiers’ responsibilities, and we take care of trail maintenance. . . . We are in the game of delivering a whole bunch of people into an element they perhaps aren’t used to, and in that we spend a tremendous amount of time trying to make it the best and safest experience possible for them.”

Ed Strapp, a patroller at Maine’s Sugarloaf Ski Area, describes the job as being similar to that of other emergency medical service providers, but with additional challenges. “Our main responsibility, just like in EMS, is we get on the scene, we establish what the injuries are, and we stabilize the patient,” he says. “But often we’re doing this on 45-degree icy slopes, and rather than extricating from a car, our extrications are from trees, bushes, and things like that.”

Once patrollers have a patient safely strapped in a toboggan, they face the additional challenge of skiing with it back down the mountain for more definitive care, without additional injury. “It can be a 10- or 15-minute transport time off some mountains,” Strapp says. “We don’t just lift them up and slide them in the back of an ambulance. We have to get them off the hill, and, in effect, we are the ambulance.”

Just Say Snow
Being a human ambulance requires being in good shape, both physically and mentally. “I would call it a job for which you can’t let your guard down,” Simson says. “Just skiing alone has its own inherent risks, but then on top of that we are skiing sometimes with explosives, or we’re skiing with toboggans. . . . It’s a lot of responsibility, so we’re very picky about who wears the uniform and who is going to be taking care of folks out there.”

Dennis McMahan, patrol director at the Freeland, Mich.-based Apple Mountain Ski Resort, agrees that it takes a person of special caliber to volunteer for the work. “When you’re out there in minus-10- degree weather and you’ve got a 40-mileper- hour wind chill, a lot of people don’t like to do that for free,” he says. “It’s a matter of commitment. You go out and do it because you like doing it and you enjoy the sport. You’re not there for the pay or the good hours and the sunny weather. You’re just there because you can make a difference.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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