Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Continually improving at all levels

Looking South to Lakelse Lake - late morning
Have you ever been in the unfortunate situation where the life of a casualty rested solely on your shoulders? It happened to me once and it occurred when I least expected it to. I can tell you that the burden of responsibility and critical self evaluation didn’t happen until days after the casualty had been successfully transferred to emergency services. Thankfully for me, the casualty survived and my conscience was clear. The remorse and guilt that I would have carried had I pursued the wrong course of action would have been debilitating. It was a very valuable learning opportunity, character building and life changing event. An individual can learn from a positive or negative experience but can a team? How about an organization? Absolutely it can!
Sometimes the nature of the work we do as Rangers places us in situations where people in distress are counting on us to literally save their lives. They may be suffering from prolonged exposure to the elements, dealing with mental stress or suffering from a painful injury. All they can hope for is that someone qualified and experienced is looking for them.
The author practicing a type III search
Canadian Rangers occasionally practice Type I, II and III searches but what if we find an individual that has a fracture of the pelvis? Now what? How do we deliver non-urban first aid, coordinate our activity as a team and effectively transport that person to emergency services without aggravating the injury? How do we use native building materials to construct a stretcher or a make-shift skimmer? Are we putting the casualty at ease because we’re organized professionals or are we incurring stress and worry because we’re confused and disorganized?
January 20 – 22, 2012 the Terrace Ranger Patrol conducted a Search and Rescue exercise in the middle of a winter storm. The training required Rangers to effectively establish a winter bivouac site for two Ranger Sections using Canadian Forces 10-person arctic tents and a 12’X14’ wall tent to act as HQ. Subsequent training involved a review of safety procedures, rudimentary GPS and radio voice procedures prior to entering into a SAR simulation.
10-Person CF Arctic Tent
Our Ranger Instructor, WO Fergus O’Connor, encouraged the members of our Patrol to ask hard questions and do some planning for unforeseen possibilities prior to deployment. We came up with a few minor ideas which later proved to be no-where near the level of preparation required. Our inexperience working together as a Patrol doing SAR and casualty extraction was about to be tested.
The training was being facilitated by the Patrol 2 I/C and both Section Commanders and therefore each section 2 I/C found themselves leading their respective section. The over-all coordination was oriented by HQ through the use of GMFRS radios.
We were tasked with the hasty search of a partially grown in secondary road located 1600 metres north of our bivouac location. Upon receiving our orders, and without delay, Terrace Rangers quick marched to our search coordinates and began to evaluate and report clues as we discovered them. In short order we found the location of the missing and semi-conscious snowmobiler. Both section 2 I/C’s went to work administering first aid to the casualty who, in this circumstance, was suffering from a compound fracture to his lower leg.
Section Commander LeBarge role playing the injured snowmobiler
Our conditions had changed and instead of being in the open where we had conducted all of our build up training, we found ourselves in a steep mature pine stand with a thick hemlock understory and very deep snow base. The crown of this forest was heavily laden with snow and to compound the situation further we were experiencing ‘white-out’ snow conditions. It was getting dark and we had lost communications with HQ due to a loss of line of sight radio capability. We were unable to effectively send or receive information vital to the coordinated decisions that needed to be made in the field. Additionally we discovered that the snowmobile and skimmer we were relying on to extract the casualty had become stuck and was not going to be available to us. 
Extracting the casualty after administering First Aid
We were doing the best we could but our limited experience was showing. Both sections were frustrated and as discovered during the ’After Action Report’ for a short period of time it appeared as though extracting the casualty was no longer the main priority. The lessons were many and a new appreciation for the professional services of search and rescue volunteers was earned.
This is why Canadian Rangers have Field Training Exercises (FTX). In the absence of training and ‘dry runs’ there resides no opportunity to improve. If we don’t practice and answer the “What If” questions we open ourselves to a heightened possibility of detrimental failure in the real world.
In my experience the Canadian Armed Forces is one of the most forward thinking organizations I have ever seen. It advocates ‘Continuous Improvement’ at all levels and as such it demands leadership at all levels. ‘After Action Reports’ are invaluable mechanisms that help members evaluate what worked well and what we need to do differently next time. Time well spent in so many inexplicable ways.
I recall observing the expression on WO Fergus O’Connor’s face as our troubles began to unfold. It was one of quiet contentment and then it dawned on me; he knew this was going to happen. That is OK because we were learning valuable lessons and that’s all that really matters .
Trees heavily laden with snow act as a barrier to line of sight radio communications