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Banff rescue's support from EMS unique to wilderness care

“Rescue is a partnership and we have a really healthy partnership in the national parks where we can lean on EMS and bring them into the response if needed. It’s not always possible, like if there’s very technical terrain or if there’s hazards present that we don’t feel we can manage to an acceptable level, we won’t.”

BANFF – Banff’s elite search and rescue team is in a unique position for elevating wilderness care.

Parks Canada’s professional visitor safety team is fortunate to work with a small, consistent group of medics from Banff Emergency Medical Services (EMS) with advanced life support (ALS) – a set of life-saving protocols and skills that can be used to provide urgent treatment for patients in the backcountry.

When mountain risks are known and can be adequately managed, the visitor safety team takes an ALS medic on rescue missions to help with pain management or complex medical calls – which averages about 16 times per year.

“That makes us a bit unique,” said Lisa Paulson, a visitor safety specialist for Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks, who gave a presentation on case studies integrating ALS into wilderness care at the Nov. 11-13 Canadian Association of Wilderness Medicine Conference in Canmore.

“Rescue is a partnership and we have a really healthy partnership in the national parks where we can lean on EMS and bring them into the response if needed. It’s not always possible, like if there’s very technical terrain or if there’s hazards present that we don’t feel we can manage to an acceptable level, we won’t.”

One recent case study highlighting how the partnership with Banff EMS works involved a rescue on the east face of Tunnel Mountain in Banff in early October.

While almost at the top of the eight-pitch, 5.10d climbing route known as Tonka, a woman fell and broke her lower leg.

Her climbing partner was quick to raise the alarm, but because daylight was rapidly fading, a helicopter rescue could not be mounted.

A ground team was quickly pulled together, including a rescuer from neighbouring Kananaskis Country and a Banff ALS medic. Pushing a wheeled stretcher in the dark, they hiked the 266-metre elevation gain to the top of the 1,692-metre mountain overlooking the Banff townsite.

With technical rope rescue equipment, a rescuer was lowered to the patient below. She was stable and a splint was put on her leg.

“She was reporting a lot of pain, so we were fortunate to have the assistance of the ALS medic to help with pain management,” said Paulson.

“They were able to give her something for the bumpy wheeled stretcher ride down from the summit of Tunnel. It was great cooperation.”

Parks Canada’s 10-member world-class visitor safety service also greatly values the contributions of its volunteer medical director, Kyle McLaughlin, a Canmore-based emergency physician who has helped strengthen the rescue team’s medical skill set and helped build relations with EMS.

Recognized by both the CEO of Parks Canada and the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides for his contribution to improving wilderness care in the region, McLaughlin said working with the medics and rescuers has led to an important, trusting relationship.

“It’s the collaboration that’s the most important thing in the relationship,” he said.

“It has really created a team that has enhanced patient care to its highest level in Canadian history for mountain rescue.”

Providing 24/7 professional search and rescue response in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks, the rescue team also works closely with partner agencies in the region when necessary, including Canmore-based  Alpine Helicopters, which provides rescue helicopters and pilots, and STARS air ambulance.

The skilled services of search and rescue dog, Leroy, a German shepherd, and his handler Logan Bennett are also called upon for various missions. In November 2021, the duo helped save the life of a 73-year-old woman who was lost overnight lost in blustering winds and driving snow in Banff’s wilderness, tracking her over 22 kilometres of rough terrain and at least five river crossings near Lake Louise. 

The Lake Louise and Banff fire departments also assist with getting to patients near trailheads or managing helicopter staging areas. In addition, many of the businesses in the region play a role in assisting the public or relaying information about incidents to the rescuers.

From overturned paddlers, lost or overdue hikers, stranded scramblers, climbing accidents, falls, medical emergencies – and sometimes body recoveries following fatal accidents when the worst happens – the rescue team sees it all.

So far this year, there have been 296 calls for service in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay; however, not every call requires action. If there is no injury, the response may be as simple as over-the-phone guidance, or an easy pickup with a vehicle or helicopter.

The number of calls so far in 2022 is in line with other years. The highest number of calls on record was 334 in 2017 – the year there was above-average visitation rates across the country due to free admission as part of Canada 150 celebrations.

That said, this past summer was one of the busiest on record. The number of so-called standard rescues – where an injured or stranded person needs rescuing, often via helicopter or wheeled stretcher – was 43 in August compared to 30 in August 2017, 31 in 2018 and 33 in 2019 before COVID-19 hit.

“It was pretty busy in August,” said Paulson, noting the weather was warm and skies were smoke-free.

Parks Canada tracks statistics on visitor safety responses by complexity.

By far the biggest number of responses were the standard rescues, sitting at 133 overall so far this year.

In addition, there were three fatalities in 2022 requiring calls for body recoveries.

A 27-year-old Cochrane woman was carried 300 metres down a steep mountain face to her death after a cornice collapsed on Mont des Poilus in Yoho National Park on April 13. On July 9, a 42-year-old from Edmonton fell to his death on Mount Temple near Lake Louise. He was located about 3,300 feet from where he lost his footing and slipped on a patch of snow and ice.  On Oct. 5, a 28-year-old Australian man died in the arms of his wife after falling about 20 metres while lead climbing a multi-pitch rock climb at Mothers Day Buttress on Cascade Mountain, just north of the Banff townsite.

Paulson said the number of calls in a given year depends on several factors, including visitation, weather conditions and how prepared visitors are.

She said individual human factors such as inexperience, lack of situational awareness, exceeding ability, or fatigue all affect the number of incidents that occur.

“I think it’s more complicated than just increasing visitation,” she said.

McLaughlin, who was brought on about 12 years ago as Parks Canada’s first medical director for a rescue service, helps train visitor safety specialists in maintaining their medical care skills such as First Aid abilities.

“We also helped them train in certain advanced protocols that would help them in situations where advanced level care wasn’t available, say, on a cliff, or on a glacier,” he said.

“From a training standpoint, three or four times a year I meet with the rescue team and we go through different medical skills, different simulations.”

The other part of McLaughlin’s volunteer job is to provide medical advice when needed during a rescue mission.

“If there’s a medical situation and they are not sure what to do, I am on a call with them to help them out,” he said.

Some of the local Banff paramedics have taken part in many training opportunities to improve their backcountry skills over the years, such as avalanche courses, whitewater rescue courses and rope rescue courses.

“The goal is not necessarily being a member of the rescue itself, but being safe in those environments,” McLaughlin said.

Aligning the rescue service with the highly trained Banff EMS team has been pivotal in advancing the system, according to McLaughlin who sits on the International Commission of Alpine Rescue (ICAR) as Parks Canada’s representative.

“If we need to, we can bring a paramedic to the scene, and ultimately, I felt and Lisa felt, that this over the years drastically improved patient care,” he said.