Rescue rangers ramp up for summer in national parks

Members of Grand Canyon National Park's Emergency Services branch practice rope rescues at a technical rescue training at the South Rim of the park in Arizona. Grand Canyon performs more search and rescues than any other national park in Arizona. (National Park Service photograph/Courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park)
Members of Grand Canyon National Park’s Emergency Services branch practice rope rescues during a technical rescue training at the South Rim of the park in Arizona. Grand Canyon performs more search and rescues than any other national park in Arizona. (National Park Service photograph/Courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park)

National park rangers in Arizona are preparing for the annual summer surge of slips, trips, falls and rescues.

Each year, more than 10 million people visit the 22 national parks, monuments and historic sites in Arizona. And each year, hundreds of those people are rescued.

“Prevention is huge,” said Christian Malcolm, who leads the Preventive Search and Rescue program at Grand Canyon National Park. “You want to do everything you can to educate your population.”

The most common rescues in Arizona’s national parks involve heat-related illnesses and visitors who are unprepared or unfit, said Kenneth Phillips, the National Park Service-wide coordinator for emergency services, based in Flagstaff.

In 2014, national parks around the country responded to 2,658 search-and-rescue incidents, including injuries, illnesses, fatalities, lost visitors, and most of all, people who were unprepared or unfit for the activities they were doing, according to the agency’s annual search and rescue report.

Most victims are 20 to 29 years old.

Search and rescues cost the National Park Service and its partners about $4 million to $5 million per year, but visitors rescued on federal lands do not have to pay except for occasional cases of negligence, Malcolm said.

“It’s a perk of being a U.S. citizen,” he said. “It’s a public service that we do, paid for by taxpayer dollars.”

Every park offers its own activities and challenges, and with them come risks and rescues. Here are some examples in Arizona.

Grand Canyon National Park: Heat, injuries and heart illness

With its rugged terrain, steep walls and rushing Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park performs the highest number of emergency services of any national park in Arizona. It also does the most helicopter rescues. In 2014, the park responded to 812 medical calls and did 324 search and rescues. Most medical calls and rescues occur on the popular trails, in the South Rim village and along the river.

Trouble while day hiking, overnight hiking and boating, as well as poor physical condition, are the main causes of calls, according to the park’s emergency services report.

Nationally, Yosemite National Park has the largest search-and-rescue team, but “when it just comes to sheer volume of calls of hiker-related injuries, I’d say Grand Canyon tops the list,” Phillips said.

One of Grand Canyon’s strategies is the Preventive Search and Rescue team, about seven rangers and 40 active volunteers who are stationed on main trails to talk with visitors about safety and respond to emergency calls, Malcolm said.

“You could really get slammed on a hot day,” when a volunteer or ranger might respond to half a dozen or a dozen calls each, he said.

Many day hikers are unprepared for the elevation changes, steep trails and heat. Some try to hike nearly 20 miles round trip to the Colorado River and back to the rim in one day, Phillips said. “They do it without adequate planning … They’re trying to do it in the summer months which, although it’s a doable achievement in the winter months, it’s totally inappropriate in the summer.”

Most medical calls and rescues at the park occur from May through September.

In the summer of 2013, Malcolm was called to the rescue scene of a middle-aged woman who was unconscious on a trail just above the Colorado River, he said. She and her group had been hiking down to a campground near the river on a hot day, despite caution from a ranger. Rescue crews did CPR, but the woman died of heat-related illness.

“I hate hearing those calls – CPR on the trail,” he said. “I’m a medic, so my heart and passion are EMS (Emergency Medical Services), but I have a big responsibility of reducing visitor injury and illness, and it can be tough to sleep at night.”

Saguaro National Park: Winter hiking, summer heat

Visitors and Tucson residents can escape city life just a few miles away in Saguaro National Park’s cactus forests and high-elevation mountain peaks. The busy hiking season is December through April, but with temperatures well over 100 degrees in the summer, park staff members also have to alert visitors how to stay safe in the desert.

“It’s clearly a challenging environment,” said chief ranger Jeff Martinelli.

The park averages about one or two dozen rescues per year, he said. Most involve injuries such as sprained ankles as well as visitors who get lost on trails.

Other threats are either dehydration or hyponatremia, when a person does not have enough salts in his or her body, said Samuel McClung, president of the Southern Arizona Hiking Club.

“Drinking too much water can deplete your body of electrolytes, so you have to balance your salts,” he said, recommending drinking water first, then eating salty foods.

Fewer visitors attempt summer hiking, but those that do can be in danger. In May 2012, an international visitor died from heat exposure while hiking in the park. Visitors from other countries or other regions of the United States might not be prepared for the desert, Martinelli said.

The park’s law enforcement rangers act as emergency services staff. There are six of them, and only one might be working on a given day in each of the park’s two districts.

Like Grand Canyon, Saguaro National Park rangers and volunteers talk with visitors on trails about safe hiking.

“We’re always prepared,” Martinelli said.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: Tourists and border crossers

Along the U.S.-Mexico border, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument boasts miles of desert wilderness, natural arches, canyons, mountains and flowering cactus.

“People say they came, they only spent a few days, but they ended up staying a week,” said chief ranger Matthew D. Vandzura.

Winter is the busy season for tourists. The park only has about one or two tourist rescues per year, often from slips, trips and falls, Vandzura said.

“For the winter visitors who are hikers on trails and in visitor campgrounds, we do the normal things that national parks do” to prepare, he said.

But the summer brings another type of rescue victim: border crossers from Mexico.

“In the summer months, we’re very much concerned about heat illness among people crossing the desert,” Vandzura said.

Eight rescue beacons – 20-foot poles with flashing blue lights and call buttons – placed throughout the park are signs of help for people crossing the desert in dangerous summer heat. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection receives the signals and sends a park ranger or border agent to the beacon, Vandzura said.

“Fairly frequently, people who made it to the beacon have friends, relatives, companions who are still out in the desert, and we need to search for them.”

The park’s law enforcement rangers also train in emergency medical services. Though they assist with beacon calls and emergency services for people crossing the desert, U.S. Customs and Border Protection manages the rescues, Vandzura said.

Preparing for rescue season

How a park’s emergency services staff prepare for the busy seasons depends on the environment and the common injuries that happen there, Phillips said.

“Collectively, an employee’s going to go through lots of different training getting ready for the season,” he said.

Some double as law enforcement rangers, while others are certified emergency medical technicians or paramedics.

In the winter and spring, “parks try to conduct an EMS (Emergency Medical Services) refresher for care providers in the park,” Phillips said.

Parks can also attend special trainings in the spring such as “rope rescue school,” which teaches staff how to do technical rescues that require rock climbing, he said.

“A big part about this job is it’s about leadership and learning to lead those that are stressed having the worst day of their life, helping them to remain calm and effectively get out,” Malcolm said about his work at Grand Canyon. “I can see from our staff here, it’s a real talent.”

Tips for Visitors

Arizona’s national parks offer visitors the chance to explore nature, culture and history, and that’s where things can go wrong.

“I think that’s what national parks suffer from is that tourist syndrome of, ‘gosh this is pretty, I’d like to wander a bit in this direction,’ and then they get way too far,” McClung said.

The risks can be reduced if visitors are prepared, Phillips said.

In addition to food and water, hikers should pack a first-aid kit, flashlight, matches, fire starter, pocket knife, map and compass, sunscreen, and sunglasses, comprising what outdoor enthusiasts deem “the 10 essentials.”

As a hiking guide in Southern Arizona, McClung tells his groups to show up to the trail hydrated, which means drinking water and eating a full meal the night before a hike, then drinking water the morning of the hike, he said.

McClung also advises hikers that hiking uphill is harder than downhill, he said.

“As it gets warm, people need to know how difficult the hike is,” he said. “One way of measuring that is elevation gain.”

Park visitors “should also make sure they match their activity with their physical abilities,” Phillips said.

“What happens is a lot of people, they get to the parks, but then they make plans kind of spontaneously without adequate forethought or pre-planning. So, they often bite off something beyond their abilities. Really, people need to start planning their trip at home.”

Ann Posegate is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at aposegate@email.arizona.edu.

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