DOG TEAMS GET THEIR OWN REFRESHER

STORY AND PHOTOS BY CANDACE HORGAN

Ski patrollers always look at fall as a time to get back into the swing of things ahead of the first runs of the season. Perhaps then, it’s not surprising that patrollers aren’t the only ones who need to get in some preseason training.

Over four days during the second week of October, Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment (C-RAD) hosted dog teams from across the state for training at Windy Point Campground in Dillon, Colorado. The training included getting Deployment Training Cards punched with Flight For Life® Colorado, a program that enables a team that consists of a handler, an avalanche rescue dog, and a snow safety tech to fly with Flight For Life® Colorado to the scene of an avalanche in the backcountry. These cards are different than the standard Lift Ticket that Flight For Life® offers to search and rescue teams, as with those cards a flight paramedic or nurse is still flying with the SAR responder. The C-RAD Deployment Training Cards allow the C-RAD team to fly on their own with just the pilot.

In Colorado, avalanche rescue dogs started to be trained in Summit County in the mid-‘80s. Summit is home to four Colorado ski resorts: Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, and Keystone. It was an avalanche on Peak 7 in Breckenridge in 1987, which was then out-of-bounds territory, that sparked the idea of creating a program to rapidly respond to backcountry accidents. In that slide, eight people were caught, and four people were killed. Several dog teams were called in to try to help with the body recovery.

“During that time, some of the people involved and other folks that were around the county started to have conversations about, ‘Hey we should look at pairing and partnering with Flight For Life® and with rescue resources and coming up with a program where we can deploy avalanche dogs with the helicopter,” says C-RAD president Doug Lesch, who patrols at Copper Mountain and is also a dog handler. “Once the Lifeguard Two helicopter was up here at Summit Medical Center in the early ‘90s, that was when the relationship with Flight For Life® really took off.

“As it grew, it started to involve teams for training and deployment into Eagle County and some of the other surrounding counties. Today, C-RAD has evolved to a formalized 501(c)(3) nonprofit and is building a curriculum — some standards — so we can take what the guys and gals over the last 30 years have been doing and put it into something that we’ll be able to pass on for generations as a training standard for our technicians.”

John Reller, an Arapahoe Basin patroller and dog handler, was one of the people who helped get the program off the ground back in the ‘90s and says that it was a relatively easy sell.

“There was no problem convincing anybody,” states Reller. “In late 1990, early 1991, ski patrol, search and rescue, the sheriff’s department, and Flight For Life® all started having conversations, realizing that each of those groups had some really specialized skills and that if we combined those specialized skills, that could really save a life in an avalanche situation.

“It’s come a long way, because actually back in 1992 when we started it was all the same agencies, but was called the Avalanche Deployment Program. Several years later, probably late ‘90s, around 2000 perhaps, we came up with the name C-RAD during a seminar over in Breckenridge. At that point it was pretty much the areas right here in Summit, the four ski areas. Very quickly obviously we got Loveland, Vail, and Beaver Creek that joined in. It’s just grown to more and more areas in the state. This week we’ve got folks from out of state as well, from Nevada and from Idaho, and we’ve got a dog down from Canada as well.”

C-RAD currently has grown to over 70 members, with many Colorado ski resorts represented. C-RAD hosts two training events each year, one in the fall and one during the winter. They often bring trainers in from out of state to work on drills for the dogs and will run mock scenarios where a dog, handler, and tech get flown to the site of an avalanche. In the winter, the area hosting C-RAD will actually bury people in holes in the snow for the dogs to find.

“I think we’ve got 50-55 folks here, handlers and technicians,” states Lesch of the fall training. “We’ve got over 20 dog teams, maybe closer to 30. We’re focusing on an annual refresher and getting a kickstart on the season while also introducing new skills and concepts. We’re fortunate to have a ton of knowledge within our program. For the dogs, we break into five different groups. Each group has an instructor, and the expectation for each group is that they’re a team. The instructor is there to provide feedback and challenge and troubleshoot, but it’s those five, six, seven folks in each group that are really driving the knowledge base and the learning.”

The fall event is a very popular one for the patrollers in the program, and something they find both enjoyable and valuable for the training.

“It’s great to be out here early season,” states Keith Hiller, a snow safety tech at Arapahoe Basin. “From A-Basin’s perspective, we’re the first ski area to open usually, and it’s good to get our head back in the game after a beautiful summer, get all our gear organized. It’s good to be out here with all these professionals and good practice with Flight For Life®, the dogs, dog handlers, and techs.”

During the training, the handlers got training drills in with other dogs who they might not see or work with too often. This is one aspect of the C-RAD fall training that the handlers find invaluable.

“The socialization aspect of this is huge as well, bringing all these dogs together,” says Preston Burns, a Keystone patroller who is one of two handlers for Scout. “You never know when you get on an avalanche who you’re going to be working with. Another dog could be on the same slide path working simultaneously. So just being able to socialize the dogs together is huge.”

The openness in the training is the other aspect the handlers find very valuable, as it allows them to work on a variety of training strategies.

“You get a different perspective from the trainers that they have, whether it’s ex-police officers, Canadian firemen, or dog handlers,” says Nate Bash, a Winter Park patroller who got his dog, Charlotte, certified two years ago. “You can work on whatever you feel you need to work on, and they can help you do that. There’s a lot of different points of view.”

“What I hope our folks are learning is not just how to take their dog from a runaway, which is just a person running and hiding in the bush, to a complete blind where they don’t need any of that visual aspect because the dog is using its nose, but also learning how other dogs get to those steps so that they can take that stuff home with them,” explains Lesch. “Then when they have a new dog in their program, or they come across a dog that doesn’t learn just like their dog does, they’ve had experiences working with other dogs, working with instructors from all over the West and all over the nation. What I think is really cool about the trainings we do for the dogs here is that we don’t necessarily have a specific curriculum on how you get your dog from step one to that validation step; it’s what’s best for your dog. There are a lot of different methods out there that could work, so we look at how to make your dog successful.”

On the second day of the training, there was a light dusting of snow on the ground. Early in the morning, a Flight For Life® helicopter flew in and landed on the dirt road that leads to the campsite. Once the rotors stopped spinning, the crew debarked and gave a presentation on all the aspects of the helicopter and how the handler, dog, and tech are to approach and load the helicopter. On the crew that day was Flight Paramedic Tim Baldwin, who is also a patroller at Steamboat Resort. Baldwin has been with Flight For Life® for four years.

“I think it’s a great resource,” states Baldwin. “We can get there and help out when we can, especially if we can know early and be able to insert people and hopefully save some lives. The first thing is we want to be able to find patients by using the C-RAD teams, whether they’re buried or whether they’re hurt, and help stabilize them, and then we can get a medical crew in there and provide services and get them to where they need to be.”

To be validated as a C-RAD responder, the dog and handler go through a stringent testing process. The actual deployment via Flight For Life® is under the auspices of the sheriff. C-RAD itself is a certification standard, and it is up to the sheriff in charge of search and rescue in a particular county whether they want to use C-RAD as the standard, or something different.
For C-RAD certification, the testing site is 100 meters by 100 meters, and must be at a different area than the dog and handler normally train at. The site can have up to three live “victims,” so to prepare the site they dig snow caves to bury the victims in. There can also be three scent articles. The goal is for the dog and handler to clear the site in 20 minutes, including an interview to discuss how the test went. Each live find has to be confirmed by a probe strike, and the hosting area will provide people to dig at the probe to confirm.

“There’s four categories for the handler and five categories for the dog; each category is scored one through five, and that score has to average out to a certain number,” explains Lesch of the test. “There are critical fails, like not finding lives. The handler decides when to call it, so they make the decision to say, ‘I feel like based on where I’ve been and what my dog has found and the number of people here that the site is clear.’ At that point, the examiners will interview the handler to get them thinking about the bigger picture. OK, so the search and rescue team has showed up or the sheriff is calling and they’ve got another dog team inbounds; where is your highest probability, the next area you’d like to focus a team?

“Yes, we want to clear a site in 20 minutes, but we also realize that’s a very fast-paced search, and we want to make sure that we’ve done all the due diligence in making sure there’s no one left out there, so if there’s an area that we haven’t worked or didn’t work as thoroughly, that’s what we want to get those handlers thinking about.”

While there has never been a live find in North America, several C-RAD responders have been deployed and found avalanche victims. In January 2016, there was a slide on St. Mary’s Glacier, and the search was delayed due to weather. The searchers had been looking in one area, but Reller and his dog, Recco, found the missing person in a different location. Reller is very experienced as a handler; Recco is his fourth avalanche search dog, and he currently has a fifth.

“We went up there, it was I believe roughly a week, 10 days after he had gone missing if I remember correctly,” said Reller. “As you’re looking at the lake and the avalanche slide path, off to the far looker’s right there was a lot of debris that was kind of on the shoreline and out on the ice. They thought that’s probably where he would be and had a lot of interest over in that area. I started working her, and she paid no attention to that area, and as we were walking across the center, where there really was no debris, just rough ice, she just stopped and started digging some snow, and by the time I got over to her she had dug down to his helmet in the ice.”

The actual helicopter deployment is a process. Upon landing, the flight nurse and flight paramedic will approach the team and check their Deployment Training Cards to make sure the team is current. At that point, the handler will hand the dog’s leash to the tech, take both pairs of skis, and approach the helicopter, dropping the skis on the ground near the left skid. The handler will step into the helicopter and sit in the back right seat. Once secure, the tech will approach with the dog and lift the dog into the helicopter and give it to the handler, who will put the dog on a leash and sit it on the ground to his or her right. Then the tech will load the skis on the helicopter’s patient pram, step into the helicopter, secure themselves, and close the door, at which point the pilot is in charge.

The speed of the deployment is what is most valuable. In spring 2018, Arapahoe Basin patroller Greg Dumas, his dog Sasha, and Hiller as snow safety tech were deployed to an incident on Georgia Pass, Colorado, that resulted in the death of a snowmobiler. The victim was located and dug out by Sasha. Dumas and Sasha were recipients of the Subaru-National Ski Patrol scholarship to the 2017 Wasatch Backcountry Rescue International Dog School, which NSP and Subaru are again supporting in 2019 (see “Wasatch Backcountry Rescue International Dog School,” page 64).

“I think last spring was the perfect example; we were both working, we were ready to go, and if they were activated from the ground it would have taken hours to get in there, and we were able to get in within 20-30 minutes from getting called,” said Dumas. “For me and Sasha, it was our first deployment. She had just passed her C-RAD and A-level A-Basin test last season. She’s young, and it was great to see that all come together. You train and it’s all scenario-based and practice and there’s always a happy ending in the training, but this was her first chance to see what it was like to find somebody that wasn’t going to play tug with her and wasn’t going to reward her.”

While the closure that C-RAD teams can bring to families is very important, ultimately what they always hope for is the live find.

“C-RAD dogs and our program and the avalanche dogs in the state have been very successful over the years with bringing closure to families and counties and towns and SAR teams that have been looking for folks,” says Lesch. “What we’re training for is one day finding that person and bringing them out of the snow alive. There are so many factors that have to line up for that. Just the condition of the patient and the circumstances in which they were buried, for starters. Weather, timing, availability of a helicopter, and I think every year we get a little bit faster and a little bit more efficient and we end up getting lucky as well with all those things coming together. I think it’s only a matter of time before it happens, but I’d rather still train for that, even if it never happens, than to give up on that mission. We want all of our folks to be so proficient and so comfortable and on top of their game that when all those other factors line up, we get to make that happen.” +

If you are interested in learning more about C-RAD, or in supporting their mission, you can visit their website and their store, where they sell collectible T-shirts. Every purchase goes toward training dogs and teams and benefits the community. Visit their site at https://c-rad.org/.

Originally published in Ski Patrol Magazine