911 Dispatchers in Salt Lake County, Utah recently were given a firsthand look at the difficulties associated with taking calls from hikers and skiers who get lost or stranded in the area’s snow covered mountains. Travis Skinner, supervisor of Salt Lake County Search and Rescue and a sergeant for the Unified Police Department, served as the rescue leader during a backcountry rescue training exercise for emergency dispatchers. The group is accustomed to taking 911 calls in Salt Lake County’s urban and suburban areas but got a taste of what it is like to be on the other end of the line when you are stranded in the snow of the city’s remote mountains.
At one point Skinner had the group looking across a vast swath of freshly fallen snow and asked the dispatchers to try and imagine all of the nooks, crannies, and crevasses in that snow where a hiker or skier could have fallen through. The 911 dispatchers have the job of transmitting information directly to backcountry rescue personnel when they receive calls from distressed citizens, but few if any have any hands-on experience with how the specialized rescue teams to whom they relay that information work or the tactics that they use. During the training exercise, however, they were able to watch demonstrations that included medical helicopters and avalanche search dogs carrying out mock rescues.
The dispatchers also learned about skier and hiker safety on the mountains and the various rescue protocols involved with these specific types of operations. According to Deb Penrod, a 911 dispatcher with the Salt Lake City’s Unified Police, the training exercises and demonstrations “[give] us an idea of what [the rescuers] are actually doing. It helps us understand what they need from us.”
One of the points of emphasis was that calls for backcountry rescues typically require far more time than calls received from urban and suburban areas.