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.
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.
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.
The team use a variety of casbags in which to wrap the casualty, the aim to warm and preserve body heat. One model, recommended and provided by the Mountain Rescue Council England and Wales is a standard mountain rescue casbag, made to MRE&W specifications by Aiguille Alpine Equipment.
The array of equipment on hand includes pulse oximeters, blood sugar and defibrillators, even cannulas, drips and artificial airways. (Of course, team members are comprehensively trained to use these items of medical equipment where appropriate.)
Lightweight oxygen clylinders, Entonox analgesic gas and comprehensive resuscitation kits have their own carrying bags – as do the vacmat and casbag. Smaller items are grouped together, according to potential need, in medical rucksacks, and teams members also carry smaller kits, to enable initial first aid treatment before further team members and equipment arrive.
For splinting limbs a wide range of splints are used, from limb-sized vacuum splints to traction splints.