You left the trailhead at sunrise, more than seven hours ago, and you’re still walking. The whole trek was only supposed to take half that time, so you’ve got to be close to the end. But the sun is starting to set and the growing shadows are changing the landscape. The evening’s first chill raises the hairs on your arms as you pull your backpack off to check your water supply – a few swigs left. You check your phone—as you feared, low battery and no reception. Reality sets in as you realize that your relaxing hike has quickly developed into a more serious, potentially life-threatening, situation.
You’re not the first person to find themselves in this dilemma, and unfortunately, you won’t be the last. Mistakes happen, and if you are in the backcountry in need of help, the Classic Air Medical team is there to get you home safely. The team is headquartered in Utah and has quick response stations all over the Western half of the United States, from Colorado to California to Montana and beyond. They specialize in extreme search and rescue missions, whether an individual gets caught in backcountry terrain, on a cliffside, or injured at the bottom of a slot canyon.
During a short break from high-intensity airborne missions, members of the Glenwood Springs-branch search and rescue squad sat down with the OutThere Colorado crew to talk day-to-day life on the job, rescue stories, how they got their start, and more.
How did you end up saving lives via helicopter?
Emily Ensminger, 30, Flight nurse: It was my dream job. Right out of high school, I went to EMT school in college to get my EMT certificate. I was deciding between going the paramedic route or heading to nursing school, and then I met a flight nurse. I wanted to be just like her. After EMT school, I applied for nursing school, and I worked as a nurse for seven years, and then I applied to be on the helicopter.
What makes this your dream job?
Emily: The answer you always hear is that “we love to help people”, which is what I love to do. However, doing what you love and helping people is even that much more rewarding when you get to be in a helicopter. (laughs) You get to go to all of these amazing places and you’re really changing people’s lives for the better. The company I work for operates in small towns, so you become a part of the community. You get to help them out when they wouldn’t otherwise have the resources. Search and rescue has always been a passion of mine as well. All of that combined is what makes it a dream job.
What are some of the differences between working in a helicopter and working in the typical emergency response scenario?
“It’s you and your partner on your own with some of the most critical patients you can imagine without hospital resources, the doctor’s knowledge base…even cell phone capabilities.”
Kerry Evens, 46, Flight Nurse/Paramedic for 16 years: On the helicopter, it’s completely autonomous. It’s you and your partner on your own with some of the most critical patients you can imagine without hospital resources, the doctor’s knowledge base…even cell phone capabilities. We really have to know what we’re doing and be able to handle anything. That’s why we need to have extra training, so that we have that background and education. It’s not a job inexperienced people would thrive in.
Emily: In a hospital, you don’t have as much independence, you work under all of the doctors. As a flight nurse, you’re it. It’s you and the paramedic and you make the critical decisions that will hopefully save a life.
Jeffrey Begay, 28, Paramedic on helicopters for 5 years: We’re working with advanced medications and procedures while we’re still in the field – things that you’d typically bring back to the emergency room. But we’re doing it all at the 911 scene environment. It changes how you operate.
What does the typical crew look like?
Jeffrey: We have eight staffed crew members at this base. Usually four nurses, four paramedics, or someone who is trained at both positions, and then the pilot. When you’re out on a mission, there’s the pilot, the nurse, and the paramedic.
What types of calls do you normally take?
Jeffrey: A big volume of calls for us takes us from hospital to hospital. Lots of 911 scene calls. If it’s a search and rescue, usually it’s an injured hiker. Also, tons of motor vehicle accidents – ATVs, snowmobiles…lots of those in Colorado.
What does your average day look like?
Kerry: The second you walk in, you could get a call and go on a mission. We come in prepared to drop everything. If we do have our time to ease into our day, we check in with the management center and conduct our fatigue-risk management score – how are you feeling? Did you sleep well last night? Is anything going on that might affect your ability to do your job at your highest ability? We verify all of those parameters with the command center daily. Then we check in with our pilot regarding weather, maintenance – anything that might be pertinent to our missions and if that might cause any restrictions such as fuel load.
In the summer, we talk about the highest altitude that we can fly with a specific weight load. With air medical missions the weight, the heat, and the altitude really effect how high we can go. Then we check all of the equipment, the medications, the batteries. Every shift, every person does that. After that’s done, we check in with the local hospital and the departments we work with the most. They call us to help out sometimes.
Emily: We work 72 hour shifts and full time is nine days per month. You can work up to six days in a row, but after that you have to take a 24-hour break before you can go on a shift again. While we’re on shift, everyone thinks we just sit around relaxing waiting for calls to come in, but there’s a lot of education that goes into our jobs as well. Lots of studying, lots of quizzes, lots of practicing. Some shifts all of the calls come during the day, so we get to sleep through the night. Sometimes they all come at night, so that’s not the case. We do something called fatigue scores every day, where we look at our energy levels. It helps us decide if we’re okay and safe to fly.
Is there a specific mission where you overcame all the difficulties to find success?
“When we landed, the tail of the chopper was actually hanging off the cliff.”
Emily: We had a recent mission out in Carbondale. The patient had a broken leg and couldn’t hike out of where she was. She wasn’t critical, but in the spot where she was, it would have taken the fire department eight hours to carry her out due to how difficult the terrain was. We ended up finding her and flying her out, but the difficult part was where we had to land. There was really nowhere normal to land within a mile from her. We all talked trying to find a place where a helicopter wouldn’t normally fit. We ended up landing on a cliffside just below where the patient was. When we landed, the tail of the chopper was actually hanging off the cliff. It was a little scary, the pilot was using me and the paramedic for guidance. We had our doors open telling him what we saw to make sure it was as safe as possible. The evac was much quicker than it would have been and we were able to get her treatment as fast as possible.
Kerry: Last summer, we had a mission at about 12,000 feet. It was an abandoned mine and some hikers were injured. We were going to be first on the scene. It was a hot day (meaning less lift) and going into it, we didn’t know the exact elevation – just the general area. When we finally found the spot we needed to land, it was just a tiny opening in the trees. That meant we had to drop straight down, which puts a lot more strain on the helicopter [rather than] gliding in. We dropped the paramedic off at a lower level with a few bags we wouldn’t need to shed some weight. That strategy let us successfully land and get the patient loaded before picking up the paramedic in under five minutes.
What’s been your biggest win as an employee for Classic Air Medical – a time when you fought the odds and beat them?
“That moment was one that had me thinking, ‘Alright, this is why we’re here. This is why we have this job.’”
Kerry: A woman who was hearing impaired was out with her son in the mountains, and she was bitten by a rattlesnake. She couldn’t hear its warning. Her son was the one that called 911. When we got the notification, we had to go to the hospital and get the antivenom. That’s a pretty rare thing for us. In this case, the snake had injected the venom into her vein, and she was in seizure when we got there. We were able to get her the antivenom she needed in the backcountry to stop her seizures and get her stabilized, bringing her to a hospital within 20 minutes. By the time we got there, she had stopped seizing and was starting to wake up. Her blood pressure had gone from non-detectable to almost back to normal. It was a huge win.
Jeffrey: Anything that’s time sensitive. The ones where if we weren’t there that person wouldn’t be alive. Those are the ones that are most rewarding. My first mission flying was for a really bad vehicle accident. There was a kid with a head injury; he had been ejected. The EMS wasn’t able to help him on the scene. We were able to land, get an airway on the child, and get them to the trauma center quickly. The child lived, and if we weren’t there to help out and transport them, that child would have died. That moment was one that had me thinking “Alright, this is why we’re here. This is why we have this job.” Calls like that are the biggest wins.
What unique technical difficulties does Colorado pose?
Jeffrey: The biggest thing here is the altitude. Based on temperature and weather, that’s going to be the biggest crutch we’ll have. For example, if it’s a hot day, we’ll have less lift at a higher altitude. We have to be very conscious about weight, whether it’s equipment or gear. The weather is also unpredictable here. We might see something on the mapping system, but then the wind could be way faster than what the system is reporting.
Kerry: It’s interesting in this area because you have the desert terrain out by Grand Junction, then the transition into the big mountains, and then we’re going over the big mountains. There’s a lot of different weather and terrain between Grand Junction and Denver and we operate through all of that.
What are some of the struggles that come along with the job?
Emily: One of the biggest struggles is really just overcoming your own personal fears – Sometimes it can be really nerve-wracking when you’re in that situation and it’s just you and your partner there. Of course we’re trained to do our job well, and we always do, but you always still wonder “am I doing enough?”
What advice would give someone wanting to pursue this career?
Emily: Just don’t give up. I wanted to a bunch of times. You need so many years of experience to have this dream job. If you really want it, you have to work hard towards it. You’ve just got to get those years in before you do it and then it’s the most rewarding job ever.
Obviously you encounter difficult situations on a regular basis. What is it that really keeps your team going?
Emily: That’s a tough question. Once you finally have a critical patient stabilized, and you can just look out the window flying over the mountains, in that setting, saving someone’s life…you put that all together and it’s an experience that you can’t even explain.
Special thanks to Classic Air Medical for participating in this search-and-rescue project. Believe it or not, their services are totally affordable if you plan ahead. It’s only $60 per year for an individual who already has other healthcare to sign up for their membership.
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