Woods hike not the ideal SAR

News Article / September 14, 2020

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By Sara White

“If it’s got to be done, it’s got to be done,” Master Corporal Dylan Weller said.

He and Sergeant André Hotton, both search and rescue technicians (SAR techs) with the RCAF’s 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron at 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia, hoped the crackling conversation overheard on a firefighter’s radio, including the words “no” and “chopper” might have dropped a full sentence—perhaps it was, “No problem, we’ll send a chopper.”

The men were deep in the woods of Fundy National Park in New Brunswick on August 19, 2018, having been lowered around 6 p.m. by a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter to assist an injured hiker. A paramedic was on the scene, having responded after the injured man’s girlfriend hiked out to find cell service and call for help. The SAR techs, who anticipated an extraction hoist back up to the helicopter, carried their medical equipment and a Stokes litter (a basket-like stretcher) from a sandbar about 600 metres away.

In just a few minutes, the SAR techs and the paramedic had the man, who had fallen around 3 p.m. and apparently broken his leg, packed snugly into the Stokes litter. A couple of Parks Canada staffers had also hiked in by that time, along with a few volunteer firefighters. But the helicopter had a malfunction and the crew had to leave the area for repairs.

With no cell service, the helicopter crew couldn’t reach the responders on the ground to let them know there would be a delay of up to six hours. After a 45-minute wait, and trying to get information through the unreliable, crackling radios, Sergeant Hotton hiked out along the trail to call in for an update.

“We knew then we had no option but to carry this guy out,” said Master Corporal Weller. “He was good, he was warm, but he was in pain.”

Now about 8:30 p.m. and getting dark, the half-dozen responders prepared for the carry. The SAR techs cached their extra gear for Parks Canada staff to retrieve later, and divided their medical equipment between them. The Stokes litter is the heaviest, sturdiest option used for a patient, but it also turned out to be the best for this carry.

“We had to hold him still, semi-sitting,” Master Corporal Weller says. “It was a narrow trail and, for the first 10 minutes, we could only get a four-man carry. That was pretty tough. Pretty heavy. After that, we were able to get six on the stretcher at a time, walk and carry, keep going and trade off. We could put him down, and he’d be secure. A regular army-style stretcher would have been hard on him, setting down on every rock and root.”

Master Corporal Weller says the team of responders was the best he could have hoped for to work with. “And the patient was in the best spirits; he made it awesome for us. He was doing our counts for us—‘One, two and lift’—every time we traded off. The agencies involved all came together, all with the same goal.”

Halfway along the trail, the group met a couple of ground search and rescue volunteers, able to lend their hands to the effort. Master Corporal Weller next looked at his watch at 12:30 a.m. in the back of an ambulance with the patient, heading to the hospital in Moncton. “He was done by then, tired and in pain, but so grateful,” he says.

The ambulance delivered the patient to the hospital and then the SAR techs to the airport to join the Cormorant crew. A repair crew from Greenwood had been to the scene, fixed the problem and everyone was able to go home.

“I tried to look online for the trail and measure the distance we carried, but I know it was three-and-a-half hours’ walking” Master Corporal Weller says. “I’ve definitely not done this before, carrying someone this far. We always hoist, maybe having moved someone five or 10 minutes from the woods or a cabin.”

Sara White is the managing editor of The Aurora, the base newspaper of 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia.

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