National Parks provide challenging environments for wing EMTs
By Tech. Sgt. Charlie Miller, 445th Airlift Wing
/ Published September 26, 2007
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AFB, Ohio -- Spending two weeks at either Grand Teton, Yellowstone or Grand Canyon National Parks sounds like a wonderful chance to relax and experience some of the most beautiful areas of the United States. Well, maybe. Depends on why you are there.
Capt. Stacy Flint of the 445th Aeromedical Staging Squadron sends Emergency Medical Technicians from her squadron to the parks all summer long to work, not to vacation.
Captain Flint coordinates the ASTS's National Park Service EMT Training Program. It's a program designed for Air Force Reserve EMTs to get valuable hands-on training in dramatically different and often physically challenging environments.
It was a pilot program in 1999 but in 2001 ASTS was put in charge. Large maps posted on the wall of Captain Flint's cubical show the different park locations.
"This past summer 16 EMTs from ASTS worked in the national parks for training," the captain said. "EMTs respond to cardiac arrest, tons of vehicle and motorcycle accidents. People misjudge their fitness and EMTs deal with a lot of heat exhaustion."
Wing EMTs are divided into small groups and sent to different parks for training. When one group's tour finishes, another group arrives to take their place.
Millions of people from the United States and around the world visit the parks annually, mostly during the summer months. Park medical personnel welcome the extra help they get from qualified Air Force Reserve EMTs.
With altitudes at 7,000 feet above sea level in Yellowstone, 6,000 feet in Grand Teton and 4-5,000 feet at the Grand Canyon, many tourists are not used to the altitude or are not prepared for the often rugged environment.
"Our EMTs responded to 79 calls while at the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks and 44 calls at the Grand Canyon," stated the captain. Unfortunately, there were four fatalities and ASTS members responded to three of them. At the end of the tours, 1694 hours were worked and another 1858 spent on-call by squadron members. ASTS members are supervised by National Park Services paramedics and rangers. Many of the rangers are EMT-qualified.
Technical Sergeants Chad Smallwood and Jerry Coleman have both been to several of the parks for their annual training over the last few years. It was Grand Teton for Sergeant Smallwood and Yellowstone for Sergeant Coleman this year, but the duty they perform at the different parks is virtually the same.
As EMTs, they have to be ready for anything to happen at anytime of the night or day; the National Parks involved are open 24 hours. Working 12 hour shifts was normal, and then the reservists were on call after duty hours ended.
For Sergeant Coleman and Sergeant Smallwood, the right diagnosis has to be made and proper medical treatment rendered the first time because the closest hospital to either Grand Teton or Yellowstone is two hours away.
Sergeant Coleman said he responded to a call that had not only an immediate life threatening situation but one where the patient did not speak English.
"His heart rate was 212 beats per minute," Sergeant Coleman said. "That's considered to be extremely dangerous. The man spoke only Japanese, so we had a definite language barrier."
The sergeant was at the scene with a park ranger who started to draw pictures for the Japanese man in hope that he could help them treat him with the proper medicine. Luckily, the man's wife arrived within minutes and she spoke enough English to help Sergeant Coleman and the ranger determine their course of action to try and lower the man's heart rate.
Non-English speaking patients are an obstacle, but thanks to the park services having interpreters on staff, most patients are able to explain to the EMTs about their illness or injury. "It's kind of a common issue. There are a lot of non-English speaking people visiting the parks," Sergeant Smallwood said.
Then there's the wildlife challenge. Sergeant Coleman and fellow ASTS member Master Sgt. Jim Foy had a close encounter with grizzly bears on two separate occasions.
"We were face-to-face, about 25 yards away from a grizzly," Sergeant Coleman said. "We stood still and talked loudly like we'd been trained and within a few minutes that seemed like seven hours the bear left." The duo waited 10 minutes then went ahead and actually crossed the bears path. Thankfully, the bear was gone.
Another aspect of the training was preventive search and rescue missions. The EMTs would hike the trails and go to the campgrounds and interact with the public making sure they were hydrating and looking for any medical signs that could spell danger.
"We hiked and walked 30 to 40 miles during the two weeks," Sergeant Coleman said. While out, the EMTs would talk to people, ask them how they were feeling and check for any medical issues. They also gave advice on how to deal with bears.
"We take all that we have learned throughout the year back at Wright-Patterson and go to these parks and actually perform our jobs," Sergeant Coleman said emphatically. The accidents and injuries are real world.
"This is the most realistic, hands-on experience we can get without deploying down range," Sergeant Smallwood said.
The Wing members don't start their annual tour at one of the National Parks; they actually spend four days at a local state park.
"It's called endorsement training and there are different scenarios we run through to prepare us for duty at the National Parks," Sergeant Coleman said.
An ongoing program the ASTS members implemented for the benefit of the parks' visitors a few years ago is a free blood pressure check station. More than 300 people had their blood pressure checked at Grand Teton last year and more than 350 were checked this year at Yellowstone. The checks are done in between calls the EMTs receive.
"It's good P.R. and people love it," Sergeant Coleman said. "They can see what we do both as military and civilian." The park rangers were impressed with the interaction and involvement of the 445th members, Sergeant Coleman said.
Now retired ASTS Chief Master Sgt. Mike Matthews is credited with the birthing of the program. He was on vacation at Yellowstone in the late 1990's, saw an ambulance and started talking to the rangers and EMTs. After numerous meetings, mailings and phone calls, the program began to take shape. Captain Flint, then an NCO, was there from the beginning.
ASTS commander Col. Oba Vincent feels that the program is so unique and so valuable that it's time to promote and grow beyond the 445th. The colonel is hopeful that in a short time many different 4th Air Force wings will rotate into the parks.
"It's such a great program, such an opportunity, it needs to be expanded," Colonel Vincent said.