Missoula Rural firefighters “learn the ropes” of altitude rescues

Posted at 2:54 PM, Oct 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-26 18:00:17-04

MISSOULA – If you were looking for a Missoula Rural firefighter on Thursday they might have been a little tied up. That’s because some of them were busy “learning the ropes” of specialized rescues.

Thursday allowed the MRFD a chance to practice the various aspects of rope rescues.

After hanging over the Blackfoot River at Bonner Bridge, the teams moved to the Smokejumper Center west of Missoula to practice rappelling to reach a “victim” and bring them back to safety.

It’s a tremendously technical exercise only done to this detail every few years, with refresher courses annually. And it takes time to get the knots and carabiners and prussiks and gear just right so both rescuers and victims are safe.

The skills are frequently put to the test thanks to Missoula’s mountain environment.

“So with Missoula being a very high recreational community, there’s a lot of people hiking and biking and horseback riding, ATVing in the backcountry,” said MRFD’s Max Kottwitz.

“And even just like at Blue Mountain for example, a lot of steep embankments that people can get injured on those mountain trails, and so just having this skill in our back pocket is a huge resource for us.,” Kottwitz added.

Yet this isn’t a skill that’s cut and dried. Access is always a problem as is weather and darkness. No two rescue scenarios are alike. And that makes familiarity with the basics critical, knowing every inch of your gear and running through safety checklists every time.

“We kind of live by the saying if you don’t use it you lose it.,” Kottwitz said. “We like to stress our safety first. You know we don’t want to put ourselves in a bad situation. So we take the proper precautions to make sure that we can have the best outcome for our firefighters plus, obviously, the patient that’s in a bad situation.’

One important part of rope rescues is that the rescuers have to use a lot of trust and skill to make sure everything is done correctly.

“Yeah, I mean we’re trusting our equipment. We’re trusting that our harnesses are on right. And we’re trusting our teammates that they’re going to lower us down correctly and safely so that we can have that good outcome that we’re looking for.,” Kottwitz said.

The training also makes it easier for Missoula Rural to work with other departments and first responders on more complicated rescues.

People can do their part by staying safe in the first place. Still, there’s a reassurance in knowing this extensive training is there when the worst happens.

Reporting by Dennis Bragg for MTN News