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Mountain Rescue and COVID – how have we adapted and are finding solutions for the longer pandemic….

Mountain Rescue and COVID – how have we adapted and are finding solutions for the longer pandemic….

06th November, 2020

So we now know that COVID is here for a while and we all need to manage our daily activities within the infection transmission restrictions. Mountain Rescue (MR) is no different, we need to maintain operational readiness as well as continue our own lives in parallel.

Previously in April, the newsletter reported from the Ochils team on MR Teams’ adaptations to new infection control restrictions and how a callout might now run. Safety remains at the top of our list of concerns, for the team member, the team as a whole and the casualty (and any friends / bystanders who offer to help at an incident – thank you to you all!). SMR has also been working to promote appropriate infection control practices and provide input into Search and Rescue Organisations across the UK and guide teams on how we can provide safe care.

In the last few months, members of the public have ventured out more, perhaps to places they wouldn’t have visited previously, or to enjoy local sights in the face of national or international movement restrictions. This has meant MR Teams have seen an increase in callouts. Teams remain committed to aiding those in need of assistance, but we need to integrate our COVID safety mechanisms to minimise cross-infection. The risks of passing on COVID (with the known early infectious period without symptoms) continues to need to be addressed, be that from/to the casualty or one of our own. Psychologically that’s quite difficult as none of us wish to harm anyone else, but with our adaptations, we believe we can minimise that risk.

COVID adaptations have taken many forms within teams – in training, socially and on callouts. Each team and their training officers have had to consider how to continue training team members, as well as new members wishing to join teams during the COVID pandemic to replace others who have moved on. Some training is easier to perform remotely – radio training for example, testing the team’s radio skills and ranges. Other training can in part be completed remotely such as with online learning on MR-specific websites (Casualty Care for example), but this doesn’t replace completely the need for some hands-on learning – first aid and medical care is a practical skill – learning how to talk with and examine casualties to determine the problem and the application of treatments. Rigging definitely requires practice and teamwork – each team comes up with its own solution. Staggered training (limiting people at a single night) or ‘bubbles’ of team members with access to equipment are possible solutions. All kit needs cleaned after use with disinfectant – training or operationally.

Callouts have changed too. Every team is a different size and so needs to consider whether a limited callout (if there are enough volunteers within a team) or a full team callout is required at each incident. Sometimes it’s not clear exactly what is needed at each incident in terms of equipment, distance, technical aspects, length of carryout, time of search, so more often than not we find the whole team are called and then sent home if no longer required. For our team, we think this is the most pragmatic approach as it minimises any further waiting for necessary resources to arrive. Even more challenging is multiple callouts in small teams  where the whole available team is needed, as played out on one weekend recently where we had 3 callouts in a day!

Medically we know Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) needs implemented and we all practice this to some degree ourselves now (and in my line of work every minute of the day in the NHS!). However, some of it isn’t easy to use practically in the outdoor or MR environment! Rigging for example – ‘surgical gloves’ aren’t suitable for rigging so we need to modify how we separate and clean our personal rigging gloves and kit but maintain personal and casualty safety. PPE isn’t the easiest to work in for carryouts – some masks heavily limit the flow of breathing air if doing heavy exertion, the surgical gloves can split, and waterproofs or water-resistant clothing (to prevent virus penetrating our clothing) are a bit sweaty to work in. We have to consider the safest approach, often through adopting MR national guidance and/or team specialists working through the local issues.  Nobody finds the whole pandemic easy to work in, but we’re a committed bunch in finding solutions.

What else has changed for us? We don’t see as much of each other as we used to – camaraderie and working together is a big part of MR – we rely on knowing each of us are capable in challenging situations and this often comes through spending time on training and callouts together. Some team members have to shield (or self-isolate!) for their own health reasons or due to being a ‘contact’ of someone or family infected. This reduces the pool of ‘ground troops’ but some can be redeployed to other essential team functions such as ‘home-working’ on the internet-based SARCALL platform that logs and updates team progress on callouts – this platform can integrate with tracking and mapping technology (helpful for keeping track of team members and directing members to the incident location). Thankfully longer-distance radio communications are possible, either through Internet-based communications (with the new SMR radios and internet-linked masts where teams have set these up) or borrowing the Emergency Services’ Airwave system, just at the right time for COVID, to facilitate ‘remote working’.

Sadly reduced face-to-face meeting limits our ability to talk to each other and support each other in the same ways we previously have, especially after difficult callouts (for example involving fatalities). Debriefs can still be done in open spaces at an incident, but some incidents don’t allow for an immediate debrief with all present if the casualty needs urgent medical care and onwards transport. Online video-calling is one solution operationally for a formal training or debrief event, but not quite the same as a sit down after the event at base, or even a few days later, and then that depends on everyone being available. Telephone calls help, and within restrictions, house calls or small meet-ups. Online help and wellbeing resources like the Lifelines Scotland site/phonelines provide alternative sources of help. Perhaps vaccine development will allow a little more human ‘contact’ in the months to come?

Fundraising is one other area that has seen a major decline as events are cancelled. Again this would have been another area where team members get together. Fundraising, both in terms of meeting the public at local fundraising offers for example at local supermarkets or helping provide cover at local events, has taken a steep decline.  From a financial perspective, all teams receive some financial support from the Scottish Government for which we are grateful, but it doesn’t quite match outgoings so we have to look to alternative methods to help balance the books. Teams are very grateful for other fundraising such as from manufacturers donating a part of their sales or by remote donations from people online / sending in letters.

So, Covid is here for the time-being, and Mountain Rescue has adapted already and will continue to do so with updating guidance and evidence. We put a lot of work into finding solutions for the practicalities of our callouts and training, as best as we can within the guidance but preserving safety. We will continue to provide care and guidance for the injured and lost, we take pride in doing so, however for the time-being, life for us all has an added layer of complexity.


Dr Alex McDonald

Moffat MRT

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