Search and rescue teams from across Colorado descend on Breckenridge for annual training conference |

Search and rescue teams from across Colorado descend on Breckenridge for annual training conference

A SARCon participant assists with a 'Pike 'n Pivot' demonstration on Swan Mountain on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019.
Sawyer D’Argonne /

BRECKENRIDGE — Volunteer search and rescue team members from across the state arrived in Breckenridge last weekend for the 10th annual Search and Rescue Conference.

The event, hosted by Flight For Life and the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, brings together about 150 volunteer search and rescue members for continuing education to help hone and develop skills in the areas of technical rescue and wilderness medicine.

For participants, it serves as a valuable opportunity to learn from other agencies and build confidence in their skills in a controlled environment.

“This keeps our profession sharp,” said Brian Taylor, director of the Wilderness Emergency Medical Program at Colorado Mountain College. Taylor also serves as a technical rescue instructor for the conference. “We don’t want to stagnate, and wilderness medicine and technical rescue are things that are changing constantly. What we try to do here is instill updated techniques, pedagogy and share ideas through these courses.”

The conference offers a variety of courses and practical training in everything from learning new technologies available to search teams to much more technical skills like hands-on mountain rescue and emergency medical scenarios.

“These volunteers spend a lot of time away from their families to rescue strangers,” said Chad Miller, lead flight paramedic with Flight For Life Colorado, who’s served as an instructor at the conference since 2011. “So at Flight For Life, we take our hats off to them for having that dedication. It’s a way to give a little back with training, continuing education and networking possibilities. … The way we’ve designed it is we have lectures throughout the weekend, and we’ll reinforce it with some hands-on training.”

Participants have their pick of which subjects they’re most interested in learning and training in. For example, a group of about 50 went out to Swan Mountain on Friday to participate in field training for pike and pivot techniques — learning methods for safely maneuvering a rescue basket down and back up over a 90-degree edge.

Participants received instruction and guidance from experts and got the chance to share with others in the group some techniques their own teams use.

“We spend a lot of time training, and we’re really good working with each other,” said Matt Lanning, a participant from Mountain Rescue Aspen. “But we do get mutual aid calls, and go to other counties. It’s nice to see how other teams work or learn some of these things at the same time as other teams so that we have a matching skillset, or at least an understanding that people are doing things differently than how we’re doing them.”

“Getting that experience with other teams and other active personnel is really helpful,” said Stephen Cline, of Alamosa Volunteer Search and Rescue. “The biggest thing is learning and taking this stuff back to your regular team. … It’s really cool to watch other teams, see how they do things and learn from each other. You get to step outside of your own little bubble.”

Other participants went off to medical training, hopping on board Flight For Life’s simulation trailer for an airway lab. Participants got the chance to interact with an extremely high-tech dummy — a $65,000 model that can speak to participants, show dynamic pupil dilation and breathe, among other features — to try their hand at tracheal intubation. Participants were able to try several devices — including laryngoscopes, a computerized GlideScope and I-gel supraglottic airway devices — to learn to maintain an open airway in an emergency.

Many participants said they’d never had the chance to participate in any similar training and lauded the conference for the opportunity.

“It gives us a higher level of confidence that when you run across someone that needs airway management like we just practiced, hopefully we can apply what we learned in the field,” said Melissa Archey, a former Alpine Rescue Team member. “As an EMT, I figure any type of training I can get is going to be good. But this is one of the best.”

This year’s conference also included classroom sessions on improving avalanche rescues, communication, underwater remotely operated vehicles and sonar instruction, the future of search and rescue and more. By the end of the weekend, participants said they’re better prepared for whatever emergencies are waiting for them in the future.

“All of us that have been here this weekend will have sharper skills, and we’ll be more on top of things when we go back to our own individual agencies,” said Sue Ahrend, of the Alpine Rescue Team. “Every single thing you can do to learn and review your skills is helpful. We’re in the backcountry all the time. We don’t have a lot of assistance, and we need to know this kind of stuff.”

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