Snowmobiles and ATVs: How to add them to your fleet

If you are thinking about adding an ATV or snowmobile for winter rescues, or if you have one and don't have your SOPs and training in order, here's what you need to know

The snow is already falling in many parts of the United States and Canada. That's great news for winter sports enthusiasts of all kinds, from snowmobilers to cross-country skiers, to snowshoers and hikers.

And with all those people in snowy outdoors over the coming months, many fire departments have turned to snowmobiles and ATVs as important apparatus for search and rescue operations.

As with any piece of specialized equipment that's going to be used by a variety of firefighters, all of whom may have different skill levels and experience, snowmobiles present a unique operational challenge for fire departments.

Many fire departments have turned to snowmobiles and ATVs as important apparatus for search and rescue operations.
Many fire departments have turned to snowmobiles and ATVs as important apparatus for search and rescue operations.

This aspect alone for the use of snowmobiles for search and rescue operations demands that a department have clear operational guidelines and proper training for its personnel. Consider some of the factors that will be in play when searching for someone missing in the snowy woods.

  • Adversely cold temperatures.
  • Poor visibility from snowfall or fog.
  • A rapidly diminishing window of opportunity to find, treat and remove a victim.
  • Lack of familiarity with terrain and hazards such as frozen-over lakes and ponds that are covered with snow and unable to support the snowmobile's weight.
  • Snowmobile mechanical failure.
  • Injury to the snowmobile operator.

My search for material relevant to this article yielded a very concise SOG for snowmobile use – it's SERV 103 (Snow Emergency Response Vehicle) – for fire and rescue operations used by the Cumberland (Maine) Fire Department. Here are some of that guideline's highlights; you can read the full SOG here.

  • The first-arriving unit shall establish a command post and the need and best response location for the rescue equipment.
  • The district engine and Heavy Rescue 103 shall respond with SERV 103. The trailer requires a 2-inch trailer ball and should be towed by the fire department service truck. In the event that the service truck is not available, the chief's vehicle or Heavy Rescue 103 may be used for towing.
  • The fire department snowmobile shall be operated with the same guidelines as all other fire department vehicles. Members who have been trained and have reached the age of 20 years of age shall be allowed to safely operate the snowmobile.
  • Members between the age of 18 and 20 shall be allowed to operate the snowmobile in training or non-emergency situations in the company of an officer.
  • The operators of the snowmobile shall be wearing a DOT helmet and department floatation jacket at all times.
  • The rescue sled shall be pulled behind the snowmobile at a safe speed, determined by the trail conditions and drivers experience and comfort level. If the sled is carrying a patient, the EMT in charge of the patient will determine the response mode. 
  • The use of the snowmobile shall be limited to fire department functions only.
  • In the event that the SERV 103 has been requested by another community, mutual aid response shall be the SERV 103 and Heavy Rescue 103, with the appropriate crew. 
  • After operations, the SERV 103 shall be cleaned as needed and re-fueled and placed back into a ready response mode. If the unit received any damage or mechanical failure during the use, the duty chief or duty officer shall be notified as soon as possible, no matter how minor the damage is.

I was impressed that every one of Cumberland's policies and SOGs are categorized as: administrative guides, moderate risk, high risk/high frequency, high risk/low frequency or moderate risk.

Expert safety resources for snowmobiles and ATVs

The North American Outdoor Institute in Wasilla, Alaska, in collaboration with H2O Guides, Inc., AIARE, the Alaska Division of Parks – SnowTrack, and the Alaska Department of Public Safety, created the Alaska Snowmobile Safety Operations course.

This five-day, 40-hour course (delivered through a facilitated, project team method) provides a discussion-based overview of safe snowmobile operation, terrain management and rescue. The course covers:

  • Trip planning
  • Avalanche awareness
  • Glacier travel
  • Cold-related injuries
  • Methods of instruction
  • Mitigating risk

The well-written course Student Manual is available on-line. Other useful snowmobile operational training programs include those offered by:

Publicize those snowmobile operating courses that are available in your area of the country on your department's website and social media platforms. Better yet, why not host a snowmobile training course for your personnel and invite community members to participate?

What a great way to enhance your department's relationship with its community members. And maybe, such courses even minimize the need for your department to be called to conduct a search and rescue operation this winter.

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