Before spring semester began, students who enrolled in a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course spent 10 long days learning to recognize, prevent and treat wilderness medicine emergencies.
After 80 hours of instruction, students were required to pass both practical and written examinations to receive a certification through the Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) of the National Outdoor
Leadership School (NOLS).
Junior Chuck Roesch, an interdisciplinary Outdoor Adventure Leadership and Ski Business major, explained WFR as “a stimulating course designed to give us the skills to potentially save a life when help
is far away.”
According to the WMI website, the WFR course is designed to provide students with the tools to make critical medical and evacuation decisions in remote locations.
“It was a lot to learn in 10 days,” said Junior Cody Wilkins, an interdisciplinary ODAL and Entrepreneurship student.“But the instructors taught us well and we learned a lot, I feel confident.”
The WFR course was offered Jan. 9-18. Wilkins described the crash course in life saving as “intensive.” It was a mix of classroom lecture with skills based scenarios ranging in topics from patient assessment, to improvised splints and wilderness wound management.
“You will learn how to assess a patient so that you can tell the difference between a medical emergency and a bad burrito,” said ODAL instructor Daryl Teittinen. “Mostincidents are minor, but knowing how to identify when a patient is in real trouble can save a life.”
According to Teittinen, the No. 1 first aid tool is not getting injured. However, when an injury does occur in the backcountry, it is essential to make good decisions and be able to see the “bigger picture.” A WFR needs to manage life threatening injuries and illnesses immediately, while making informed decisions on rescue and evacuation.
Outdoor Adventure Leadership Director, Rosie Hackett said the main difference between wilderness and urban medicine practice is using improvised gear, and providing prolonged patient care. But the definition is arbitrary; WFR skills can be helpful for anyone who is first on the scene to any type of accident. Hackett has used her WFR skills for more car accidents than incidents in the field.
“Most cars will keep driving by, but if you’re educated, you can help someone,” said Hackett.
In a place like Tahoe, there can be a lack of cell phone coverage, which puts a need for wilderness medicine in the front country.
First responder knowledge is a good tool for anyone, but for outdoor instructors and guides, the WFR certification is essential.
“In the backcountry, the WFR is the industry standard,” said Teittinen.
NOLS and Outward Bound, two of the biggest outdoor adventure programs, both require their field instructors to be WFR certified, according to their websites. Whether seeking employment in the outdoors, or casually recreating, exercising good judgment is always important.
“Prevention is key,” said Hackett. “Play the role of a productive paranoid. In other words, always think and prepare for the ‘what if’ possibilities.”
Injuries don’t always happen on the most difficult terrain during the most extreme activities.
According to The Adventure Program Risk Management Report, the primary contributing factors of backcountry injury
are: falls and slips (24 percent), previous medical history (9 percent), and carelessness (8 percent).
“It’s a matter of when your guard is up versus when your guard is down,” said Teittinen.
The most common types of injury in the field are athletic injuries, which include sprains and strains. Snowblindness accounts for less than .01 percent of backcountry injuries. These statistics are coming from professional outdoor organizations, practicing risk management. In a group led by guides, snowblindness is easy to prevent by making sure everyone is wearing sunglasses, but minor slips and falls, and cooking accidents are harder to predict.
In any case, “Good judgment is the best first aid kit one can take with them,” said Hackett.
While the backcountry injuries and ailments range in severity, the WFR students were provided with the methods to tackle any situation, in any environment. The success of the course is displayed in the confidence of its graduates and their ability to act in the field.
Freshman Casey Gordon, an interdisciplinary ODAL and Entrepreneurship student, said, “After finishing the WFR I feel
more confident and competent to help with any injury in the wilderness.”
“This was a refresher for me. After working as a full-time ski patroller for a few years, I had already learned all of the material and had a chance to practice it for real hundreds of times,” said Roesch. “However, these skills do fade if they are not used. It has been a couple years since I provided any first-aid, so it was great to refresh a lot of the skills that had become a little rusty.”