Gaia GPS Assists in Backcountry Rescue

Wood River Fire & Rescue execute a rescue mission using Gaia GPS

Wood River Fire & Rescue execute a rescue mission using Gaia GPS

From Dispatch to Planning

On June 13, 2016, three fire departments responded to a technical rescue in the Wood River Fire & Rescue service area in Idaho. The patient had tendon damage from falling, as well as some broken leg bones. The injury happened in the backcountry, but Wood River’s extraction team knew the general area—west flank of Kelly Mountain—and headed out immediately.

The victim’s spouse shared a set of GPS coordinates, but the team received them on the road, with no access to the internet for planning. Fortunately, two people on the initial rescue team had the Gaia GPS app on their devices, with downloaded maps for recreational backcountry skiing in the area. After inputting the coordinates, they could study the maps in Gaia to answer questions like, “How close can we get by road?” and “What’s the best approach for access?”

On their way to the location, the Hasty team (first group sent on a rescue, to determine patient’s condition and plan the overall rescue) received a set of updated coordinates, which they then mapped in Gaia GPS. The update didn’t add up—the new location added 10 minutes of flight time to the rescue, which indicated a drastic error. “We know these aren’t the right coordinates because I can see this isn’t anywhere near where these people said they were,” Bass Sears said of the erroneous points.

Since the hikers frequently adventured in the area, the team knew to stick with the initial Kelly Mountain spot. Review of the dispatch calls later revealed that a simple switch between Degrees Decimal Minutes and Decimal Degrees coordinates accounted for the issue.

The rescue team knew something seemed wrong with an “updated” set of coordinates (Shown on Gaia Topo in feet)

The rescue team knew something seemed wrong with an “updated” set of coordinates (Shown on Gaia Topo in feet)

The Rescue

Stokes litter: a stretcher designed specially for use around obstacles

Stokes litter: a stretcher designed specially for use around obstacles

Once the Wood River team reached the injured patient, they established a need to carry them via a Stokes litter, and descend 1500 vertical feet to the nearest dirt road that was accessible by air transport. The silence of their initial ascent quickly filled with tons of chatter about the terrain, the maneuvers required to successfully complete the rescue, and radio traffic.

A team of 12-14 people assigned to the rescue on foot, only 2 of them paid full-time employees, worked together to deliver the patient to safety. Sears said that even an hour or two planning for the rescue would have eliminated airlift assistance that day, but using coordinates and Gaia GPS to develop their plan meant the difference. After 6-8 hours of transport, and four helicopter loads of rescue equipment and personnel dropped at the staging area, they safely delivered the patient to the air ambulance.

Emergency responders rest after a job well done

Emergency responders rest after a job well done

The Power of Preparation

GPS technology changed emergency response work forever, but SAR and Fire departments can’t provide expensive standalone GPS units to the thousands of volunteers across the country—that’s where Gaia GPS comes in. At the end of last year, Gaia GPS started a pilot program to share the app and GaiaPro subscriptions free to emergency volunteers, like wildland firefighters and search & rescue responders. In the last 10 months, over 1,000 people have received this powerful navigation tool at no cost, and gone on to use it in their lifesaving work.

Sears cautions that GPS technology also serves a major purpose for the victim of an accident saying, “If you know where you are when you need to get rescued, it’s going to happen a lot faster.”

If you have questions about how Gaia GPS can help keep you safe in the backcountry, write to us at support@gaiagps.com for more information.