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Mountaineering equipment today is a world away from the hemp ropes and hobnail boots of the early pioneers. So too is the equipment available to mountain rescue teams and their individual members. Vacuum splints and specially designed stretchers have long since replaced the need for the makeshift use of whatever came to hand. Advances in medical technology, and the dedication of a variety of indiviuals, has resulted in a range of specialist equipment for use in the demanding operational rescue environment.
All the medical equipment used is useful, portable and simple to use in most environments. Bearing in mind that even a four wheel drive rescue team vehicle – or a hovering helicopter – may not be able to directly access a casualty, a major consideration is that team members are required to carry all the necessary equipment to the casualty site on their backs! Any equipment must not only be strong, durable and reliable, able to withstand robust use in rough terrain, whatever the weather conditions, but must also be simple and easy to use – in blizzard or wind, sunshine or pitch dark.
So, for example, the classic Bell stretcher – the mainstay for teams in England and Wales for over thirty five years – is specifically designed for mountain use, splitting into two halves, each one portable by a single team member. The pieces are then assembled at the point of need.
Individual teams use a variety of lightweight casbags in which to wrap the casualty, the aim to warm and preserve body heat. The one recommended – and which we provide to teams – is a standard mountain rescue casbag, made to our specifications by Aiguille Alpine Equipment.
The vacuum mattress provides total and effective spinal immobilisation, making the casualty more comfortable – and less likely to develop pressure points – whilst encouraging and maintaining good circulation.
The vacmat starts out as a flat, airtight 'bean bag', in which a casualty is wrapped. Once secure, the air is pumped out of the bag, producing a semi-rigid cocoon in the shape of the casualty. It is by no means a substitute for a stretcher but does enable team members to move a casualty over short distances to a normal stretcher, without worsening his injuries.
And, once the casualty reaches hospital, it can be left in place for X-rays, reducing the amount of movement between procedures as the injuries are assessed.
Work is currently underway to develop a new stretcher, fit for mountain use, now that Bell stretchers are no longer in production. But research and development continues with all specific mountain rescue equipment, to improve and refine, or develop new, essential items of rescue equipment.