Hand Tram Rescue
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
On Sat. Aug. 3 around 10:11 a.m., Girdwood Volunteer Fire and Rescue (GVF&R) responded to a call about another Winner Creek Trail hand tram fall. It was the second within two months from the terminal on the Alyeska Resort side of Glacier Creek.
After the June 8 fall claimed the life of Jeffrey Hummel, GVF&R debriefed and evaluated its response in the event of another accident and conducted its weekly Tues. training on July 30 at the hand tram to practice with new equipment and techniques.
Just four days later GVF&R put the lessons from its Tues. training into action when an adult male fell about 50 to 100 feet and was in critical, life-threatening condition.
With the sheer cliff face, there was no angle or edge to break the man’s fall. E-bikes were used for the first time to reach the accident site faster, according to Girdwood Fire Chief Michelle Weston and Capt. Josh Heuer.
Heuer explained how the e-bikes improved response time to reach the man, when this Gazette reporter met with Weston and Heur at the Girdwood Fire Hall to learn how the rescue was conducted, what new techniques and equipment were used and about e-bikes.
“On Winner Creek Trail a bike is by far the fastest way, so we use backcountry backpacks on two of our rescuers,” Heuer said. “They were able to get there at least five, if not 10 minutes, before the next group of responders were, with basic medical equipment from all of our vitals, all of our packaging, splinting, get a warming blanket on them and getting an IV established.”
E-bikes allow first responders to get the patient care as quickly as possible, with more responders following right behind with side by sides of medical equipment, such as litters and wheels.
Heuer said the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center (Alaska RCC), located at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, was called before medics arrived to access the scene. PJs (pararescuemen) using a Pave Hawk with hoisting capacity were available to arrive on scene as soon as GVF&R got the patient to the landing zone on the Crow Creek side to hoist the man into the helicopter and fly him directly to an Anchorage hospital.
This response is much faster than getting a patient on a gurney, wheeling him or her to an ambulance and driving to Anchorage. GVF&R had a medical group and a rescue group on scene. The former made initial assessments to identify injuries and take action. The latter worked on setting up rescue equipment.
“We put a full body vacuum splint on,” Heuer said, “which is something that basically locks the body into position and splints the full pelvis and arms. Then we were able to put him into a litter. Once he was secured, it was a matter of hooking him up to a bridle, doing the hoist, and moving him over the creek. Within five minutes of us getting him down, the helicopter arrived.”
Weston and Heuer estimated it took a half hour between when the call was received and when the helicopter received the patient. The procedures used in this rescue contrast with how the rescue was conducted prior to the Tues. training.
“The hard part isn’t getting to the patient,” Heuer explained. “It’s getting the patient out from that really confined area. Moving them up and out of that takes a while. We used a rope system, and we had a ton of bystanders on that first call. We hadn’t developed this new lifting system yet, so we did it hand over hand, but we had more than that with bystander personnel. We probably had about 50 people on the scene, so we were able to just lift up and out off of the trail system there and pass him from person to person and out.”
Weston said previous procedures used the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group (AMRG) to perform the technical lift off since GVF&R is not supposed to perform high-angle rescues. After spending much time waiting for AMRG and Alaska RCC to arrive from Anchorage, GVF&R began searching for a low-tech solution to retrieve a patient so Alaska RCC could fly the patient out.
“We do action reviews after we do these big events.” Weston said. “We debrief right then about how can we do it better. Later on we usually do another management level review about ‘are there things we can improve, are we missing a tool?’ We’re constantly trying to find out how to do something faster, better and with the best tools,” she said.
GVF&R took the scenario from the June 8 fatality and replicated it with a mannequin in the same place to work on the best way to extricate. Conventional methods do not work with the steep cliff face. Since the patient cannot be carried up, rescuers devised a different lift method. Now GVF&R uses a winch designed for ascending and descending outside of high-rise buildings.
“It’s a dolly that allows for a controlled descent with a cordless drill put inside that will winch a full-weighted person back up,” Heuer said. “In this case, it’s a person in the litter. We tied it [the dolly] off to the hand tram and lowered a cable down. Then we had the litter there and put the patient in it. You engage the drill and hoist them up. We pull the entire system with the hand tram to the Crow Creek side. It has a landing area just before the terminal,” he explained.
According to Weston and Heuer, the patient is lowered three feet in a controlled, secure manner. Since the dolly worked well during training, GVF&R personnel were able to use it in the rescue four days later.
The e-bikes that were included in the training are a recent acquisition for a number of reasons.
“When medics have hiked all of this equipment in ahead of everybody for a mile or two miles, by the time they get there, they’re really tired,” Weston said. “The idea would be to put them on the bikes. They’d get there quicker, and all the equipment and kits would come in later with the side by sides, so we’d get six people out there quicker than walking.”
As far as Weston knows GVF&R is the first fire department in the state using e-bikes as a rescue tool, and she believes trail accidents are on the rise. Weston saw Division of Forestry using e-bikes on fire lines for the first time this summer. After learning that Alyeska Resort was going to start renting e-bikes, she thought GVF&R should have the same tools to rescue riders in an emergency.
Weston said a $2,500 donation from the Carr Foundation, Inc. to GVF&R bought one bike. A second donation, made in memory of a community member combined with other community donations, purchased a second. The e-bikes retail for $4,300, but GVF&R received a professional discount. Lt. Steve Bartholomew, who is also the bike manager at Alyeska Resort, encouraged GVF&R to try e-bikes out to see how they would perform during a backcountry response.
“Our crews did an amazing job,” Weston said. “I’m very fortunate to work with a bunch of great people that have really good technical skills that are dedicated and work together as a team. If you don’t have one of those things, those technicals aren’t going to go as well as they did.”