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Monday, 09 January 2017 08:00

Parks visitor safety specialists enhancing back-country care with help from local physicians

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The 2016 Canadian Mountain Parks Backcountry Medical Council met in Glacier National Park for the annual meeting. The 2016 Canadian Mountain Parks Backcountry Medical Council met in Glacier National Park for the annual meeting. Photo by Parks Canada

A more concerted effort to offer the best possible care to people who are injured in the backcountry is seeing results when it comes to the positive outcomes patients are experiencing as they recover.


The Canadian Mountain Park Backcountry Medical Council (CMPBMC) was first formed four years ago.
Lisa Paulson, a Parks Canada visitor safety specialist for Banff/Yoho/Kootenay and chair of the medical council, was one of the people responsible for seeing the group’s start. She saw a need for mountain parks to align themselves with physicians who would be willing to provide oversight to protocols to be used by those people rescuing individuals injured in the backcountry. This would be done in a similar fashion as to when backcountry ski lodges or ski hills align themselves with a physician for support.
The CMPBMC now meets regularly and includes the involvement of five volunteer physicians representing teams in Jasper, Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Waterton Lakes and Kananaskis country.
It took some time to bring physicians on board from every area.
“Eventually everybody found a physician that was local and they could develop a local relationship and work directly with that team,” explains Paulson. “And that is somebody that team could work directly with as well.”
The intent of the work of the council is to formalize protocols for what to do with patients who are injured in the backcountry. Visitor safety specialists do receive advanced first-aid training, but there are additional protocols in place based on each area’s individual needs. Where extra protocols are adopted, the superintendent for the area signs off on them, as does the local physician. The group has also determined the training for such protocols can be offered on a continuous basis moving forward.
“These physicians have their finger on the pulse (of the area), an interest in backcountry medicine and all the practices are based on evidence,” points out Paulson.
The council is always providing its members with the newest medical information available so best practices can be as up-to-date as possible. This information could include how best to use heli-swing tools, aspects of rope rescues, or how to handle a hypothermic patient.
“It’s all about how best to manage the patient to have the best outcome,” adds Paulson.
What each team focuses on and its protocols could vary from park to park. For example in Waterton there may not be as many calls as in a busier park such as Banff. All visitor safety specialists do have common training though that includes Canadian mountain skills training, advanced first aid, how to manage groups, avalanche forecasting skills and a strong set of mountain skills.
Often resources are shared between teams so if there is a more complicated rescue in Waterton, individuals with those specific types of skills can head to that national park to lend a hand and guidance. Paulson likens it to the fact a smaller park such as Waterton has the support of the entire Parks agency behind it.
“When a backcountry call comes in (in a national park), really, a rescue system is what’s being activated,” she adds. “Specialists tease out what needs to be done and who is involved such as EMS or the hospital into the loop, how to most safely access the patient and then where to do and how to get them the best possible care.”
Every fall, a two-day seminar takes place with members of the CMPBMC. It offers a time to look at what is new and cutting edge in mountain rescue as well as examining interesting cases from the past year and lessons learned.
Detailed statistics are kept by the council to ensure progress can be tracked and show whether protocols are working. Paulson says in Banff, she has heard from a local orthopedic surgeon on more than one occasion that what the rescue team did for the patient in the field, made a tremendously positive impact on that patient’s outcome including less tissue damage and a better overall result.
In Waterton in the past year there were about 90 calls and of those officials needed to respond to 25 of them. There was one fatality, four serious patients and the
rest were less serious cases. Most of the calls were responding to falls, patients in medical distress or simple slips and trips by hikers on trails.
Now humming along in its fifth year, Paulson is grateful for those volunteer physicians who have come onboard to offer their expertise to the council.
“We just really want to thank the physicians for being involved,” she adds. “They’ve really made a difference to the quality of care we can offer our visitors.”
Dr. Gavin Parker has been the physician medical director for the Waterton area for the past four years. He is based out of Pincher Creek.
“What it’s done is formalized things ... given them a few more tools and the confidence to utilize them,” he says about his involvement with Waterton.
He also appreciates the relationships that have been created and the fact he can let parks visitor safety specialists know the end result of the rescue that may have been carried out in terms of patient care.
“Hopefully I’ve been able to provide a bridge between the definitive care for the patient ... and the rescuers,” adds Dr. Parker.
He finds his role is mainly to get everybody on the same page and help them see how to use the skills they already possess.
“People don’t understand how much those guys do and what goes into making sure the visitor experience is not only enjoyable, but more importantly as safe as possible,” he adds.
From avalanche assessments to monitoring cougar and bear activity, to having the ability to respond to an emergency, there is structure and support in place. It can be in the background, but it’s quite an intricate structure to keep people safe.
“It’s phenomenal the skillset these guys have ... and what they do.”

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Rose Sanchez

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