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Into the wild with search and rescue

Halifax Search and Rescue members bring an injured hiker to an awaiting helicopter during a simulated emergency scenario near the Blue Mountain hiking trails on Thursday.
RYAN TAPLIN
Halifax Search and Rescue members bring an injured hiker to an awaiting helicopter during a simulated emergency scenario near the Blue Mountain hiking trails on Thursday. RYAN TAPLIN - The Chronicle Herald

It’s blazing hot and the horseflies are swarming. The sheep laurel moss, sticks and roots underfoot make for tough slogging.

On top of that, there’s a woman screaming in the woods that her leg really hurts.

Welcome to the world of remote search and rescue.

The Nova Scotia RCMP and Halifax Search and Rescue invited reporters to get a look at how wilderness rescue operations are organized and executed during an exercise Thursday at the Blue Mountain hiking trail in Hammonds Plains. After an extremely bumpy ride about a kilometre into the woods on a six-wheeled Argo off-road vehicle, we watched as rescue volunteers demonstrated their expertise in a dense thicket where the “victim” lay screaming.

In this scenario, the 39-year-old woman called 911 after breaking her leg in a fall while chasing her dog Kiwi, who had raced off the trail chasing a squirrel. The rescuers knew her general whereabouts from her cellphone GPS and pinpointed her location by shouting her name and saying they were there to help.

After asking permission to treat her, the two-member team bandaged the woman’s prosthetic open fracture and applied a U-shaped flexible splint that wrapped around her foot. They also took her vitals, checked her for other less obvious injuries and placed her in a stretcher shaped like a long basket, called a stoke.

After a time we heard the sound of an approaching helicopter, which circled the area briefly looking for a safe place to land. After the cloud of dust and leaves kicked up by the rotorssubsided, the rescue team carried the unfortunate hiker to the chopper and, after she was safely stowed, it returned to the sky.

A similarly successful rescue in the real world

takes a lot of teamwork and communication among several organizations, said Paul Service, spokesman for Halifax Search and Rescue, in an interview Thursday at an integrated command centre on Lewis Lake Terrace before the exercise.

“It’s a big process, it’s multidimensional,” Service said, noting that it usually involves the RCMP, Halifax Emergency and Fire Services and, if a helicopter is needed, the Department of Natural Resources will bring in one of its four H125 Airbus choppers based in Shubenacadie.

“We’ve got a pilot on call for daylight hours to assist with any of these rescues,” said Reuben Solomon, the DNR aviation pilot who participated in the exercise. “All of our work is remote impaired landing areas. So we’re always available to assist GSAR and the RCMP or any of the other partners to help with any of these scenarios.”

The rescue process is usually sparked by a 911 call from the person in distress. That call is passed on to the Nova Scotia RCMP’s ground search and rescue incident commander, Const. Laurie Haines.

“My role is simply to act as a liaison between the RCMP and the other agencies involved,” Haines said at the command centre Thursday.

“I regularly train with those volunteers. I understand what their capabilities are and what they have for equipment,” said Haines, who is also a volunteer search and rescue member. “I make sure we’re doing the search in the most effective and efficient manner possible.”

The agencies use a newly implemented communications system called TMR (Trunked Mobile Radio) determine who will be taking part and what equipment is needed. Once in the field, the agencies keep in communication to keep the operation moving smoothly, with information such as a specific location and the extent of any injuries.

The world of search and rescue has evolved overthe years, from huge teams looking for lost kids or hunters to smaller teams rescuing people in the woods, Service said.

“We still have all those people that are available but we’re now down to a remote rescue team, which is designed for precision,” said Haines, who has been a Halifax SAR volunteer for nine years.

“We know generally where they are and we will respond and will be able to evacuate the patient or render the assistance that they need in the wooded area.”

Halifax SAR gets funding from Halifax Regional Municipality for operational and vehicle expenses, as well as equipment damage or loss support from the RCMP. But SAR volunteers pay for hundreds of hours of training and thousands of dollars in equipment out of their own pockets.

And it’s an increasingly busy volunteer effort as more people venture into the wild without the proper equipment and wilderness knowledge, Service said. Halifax SAR has been called out for 17 incidents so far this year, compared to about nine or 10 at the same point in the past two years.

Hikers should bring along a real compass, extra food and water, and clothing that will keep them warm if they get stranded overnight. And while you shouldn’t depend on your phone for navigation, make sure it’s charged and maybe bring along a backup battery, Service said.

“(The trails) are a whole lot more accessible through your cellphone (and) mapping programs,” he said. “Through social media shares of trails, people are able to find them a whole lot easier. . . . People are taking the adventure of going in, which is great, but they’re not always going in prepared.”

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