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The Alpine Rescue Task Force: Taking the rescue task force to new heights

Police and fire agencies worked together to prepare and care for a major ski event

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By Glenn Norling

High in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 40-plus miles from any major city, is a difficult place to manage an emergency. That made public safety preparations for the 2023 Stifel Palisades Tahoe World Cup skiing event, held in February in Lake Tahoe, California, especially important. Agencies began meeting well beforehand to discuss how they’d respond to an on-mountain race disruption or mass-casualty incident (MCI).

The clear solution seemed to be implementing the rescue task force (RTF) concept used for other areas of the resort. Implementing the RTF concept in this challenging and rather specific environment proved to be a significant undertaking and led to the creation of the Alpine Rescue Task Force (ARTF).

The event

The 2023 Palisades Tahoe World Cup would take place over a weekend, with roughly 70 racers from more than 20 countries. The Palisades Tahoe mountain resort would additionally be open for skiing. Routine crowd numbers for a good-weather weekend there average roughly 14,000 per day, and crowds were expected to reach 20,000 daily with the World Cup race.

Throughout the 2022-23 season, record snow amounts routinely filled the mountain with skiers every weekend. Lake Tahoe had over 12 feet of snowfall just in the week prior to the event. The snowpack was still more than 600 inches (50 feet) on the first day of spring.

The Placer County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) was the lead law enforcement agency and partnered with CAL FIRE, North Tahoe Fire and the Olympic Valley Fire Department to form the Alpine Rescue Task Force. A total of 10 agencies were involved in safety and security planning for the event.

One important communication link was found with the California Highway Patrol (CHP). Though CHP wasn’t part of the ARTF, one of the Palisades Tahoe ski patrollers also happened to be a CHP flight officer and paramedic who routinely operated in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. His expertise in solidifying the concept and assisting the coordination of training with the Palisades Tahoe ski patrol was a significant asset.

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The challenge of implementing the RTF concept in this challenging environment led to the creation of the Alpine Rescue Task Force.

Gear considerations

Specialized equipment: guns, tourniquets, skis

Adding a snowsuit, layers, gloves, ski boots and skis was challenging simply in terms of flexibility, balance and coordination. There was a lot of discussion and practice regarding operating in the ARTF role with all the snow gear on. Simple tasks like bending down to adjust ski boots were made difficult by the bulk.

After a few trainings, the team members changed the configurations of their plate carriers, took some gear off their belts and determined what gear would be placed on standby. They tested retaining batons, flashlights, radios and even weapon magazines during their trainings.

A large locker was installed in a secure location on the mountain to store long guns as well as additional less-lethal tools in case of a large-scale incident. The team did not carry rifles or 40-millimeter launchers during the event, but had long-gun coverage via sniper-observer teams already in place at key locations at the venue.

Medical gear

Fire agency team members had to get creative with what they carried on their plate carriers versus in a backpack. It was all about the amount of basic life support (BLS) equipment they felt comfortable carrying. Some decided to always carry their backpacks, whereas others staged theirs due to mobility issues. All the weight of the additional medical gear changed the act of moving down the hill on skis, especially on the challenging terrain (off the main runs or groomed areas). This had an impact on the number of CAT tourniquets, Israeli bandages and other bandages carried by team members, as well as the multicolored tape to label patients in an MCI.

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A total of 10 agencies were involved in safety and security planning for the event.

Patient transport considerations

Due to the terrain steepness and lack of motorized transport, the team discussed and trained on working with ski patrol members to get patients down the mountain. That discussion also encompassed the potential for individuals who are uncooperative from a law enforcement point of view. One option was walking patients in ski boots down the outskirts of the course.

Both fire agency members and ski patrollers were very aware of the challenges of the cold environment for trauma patients. During team trainings, firefighters relied heavily on their ski patrol partners, who would also have several members staged in the ARTF locations.

Communication preferences were to have not only radios but face-to-face communication with ski patrollers for coordination of patient transport in cold zones. The goal was to get patients down the hill to an established casualty collection point (CCP) in case of a large incident.

Ski patrollers would have the responsibility for patient transport, as that was a key skill they used every day, whether via motorized vehicle or toboggan. If a warm zone was established in an active threat incident, then and only then would the fire agency team members use a toboggan.

What was not common knowledge at the time was that the course (already a black diamond run, with a slope greater than 40 degrees) had been prepared weeks ahead of time with water to solidify it for the racers. Ice presented challenges for the ARTF on skis. Therefore, members were trained in the use of crampons, ice anchors, rope and hasty harnesses. In addition, there was a significant amount of discussion on when it was necessary to venture onto the course and when it would not be worth the risk. We discussed numerous possibilities, as the team had to be prepared for worst-case scenarios. The team all trained, as they were going to need to navigate the racecourse at some point.

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Due to the terrain steepness and lack of motorized transport, the team discussed and trained on working with ski patrol members to get patients down the mountain.

ARTF skills training

Training for the ARTF was conducted over multiple sessions, each with both classroom discussions and practical on-mountain skills development and practice with the following skills:

  • ARTF movement (racecourse, buffer zones, on-mountain, crowd areas)
  • Arrest and control/mountain safety considerations
  • Arrest and control in ski boots and gear
  • Expectations of an incident stopping the race (temporarily or permanently)
  • Transport of injured or arrested subjects down the mountain
  • Race venue and surrounding terrain familiarity
  • Training on technical rescue/arrest of subjects on the mountain using crampons, anchor points and rope
  • Organized movement of ARTF (staying together on skis)
  • Organized ARTF movement through crowds (with/without skis, snowboards)
  • Evacuation scenarios from natural disasters to active shooters (theory discussion and practical movement of people down the mountain)
  • Test radio communications on mountain.
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Training for the ARTF was conducted over multiple sessions, each with both classroom discussions and practical on-mountain skills development and practice.

Snowboards or skis?

As you might expect, this was the point of a lot of discussion. Many team members snowboard as well as ski. Many described themselves as much more advanced using snowboards.

The team elected to stay on skis for mobility, traversing, balance, uniformity and slow-speed maneuvering. One firefighter stayed on a snowboard because that was what he knew. It worked out fine, but the team trained with him using poles while he was on his snowboard for balance during stopping and slow-speed maneuvering.

The course was too steep and icy to use snowmobiles – even snowmobiles with studs embedded in the rubber tracks. Attempting to make it up a run solo on this type of snowmobile would require a level of proficiency only a few non-first responders in the area had. In addition, navigating to a certain narrow area on the course or taking a passenger would make it nearly impossible. Ask any snowmobile operator, and they’ll tell you: You climb or descend, but you do not stop mid-slope. The sled can’t be turned sideways, or it will roll … all the way to the bottom of the hill. This is not conducive to stopping a threat, rendering aid or dealing with protesters.

The only way to travel this steep black diamond course was either by racing down it on finely tuned skis or by walking on it with crampons, secured with a safety rope. Even utilizing a Sno-Cat would have been time-consuming and dangerous given the amount of ice and steepness of the course. Sno-Cats could not climb or descend the hill due to the angle. The resort actually uses a winch system to lower their Sno-Cats for run maintenance, which is too dangerous to do with people.

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Though CHP wasn’t part of the ARTF, one of the Palisades Tahoe ski patrollers also happened to be a CHP flight officer and his expertise in solidifying the concept and assisting the coordination of training with the Palisades Tahoe ski patrol was a significant asset.

Primary capabilities

The ARTF designated six primary capabilities for the team:

  • On-mountain and on-course response to mass-casualty incidents.
  • Coordination with ski patrol.
  • Coordination with sniper/observer teams providing event overwatch.
  • Coordination with patrol and staged tactical team operators to assist if needed (ride up the chairlift for more law enforcement resources).
  • Transporting victims to the staging area or helicopter landing zones.
  • Communication between the unified command, first responders at the resort base area, ski patrol and event organizers regarding issues and/or emergencies.

Race days

Challenging weather prior to the race weekend affected the total number of spectators and skiers at the resort, reducing it to roughly 11,000 each day. The weather on Saturday was calm, with blue skies breaking through the clouds throughout the day.

Two ARTF teams were established on the racecourse, and each was paired with standby groups of ski patrollers at designated locations. A third standby group was placed at an additional location.

On Sunday the weather was less cooperative. As the day’s racing continued, snow began to fall more and more steadily, resulting in declining visibility. The weather also meant the three medical helicopters planned to be on-site were grounded the entire weekend.

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The racing all weekend turned out to be spectacular and took place without incident.

Future deployments

Enhanced training for future deployments would include shooting with winter gear and skis on for the law enforcement team members, adding additional technical rope rescue training for all team members, and conducting additional scenario-based training exercises.

Equipment improvements for future deployments will include having personal crampons and climbing harnesses and using lower-profile cold-weather gloves to improve dexterity.

Takeaways and lessons learned

The following lessons were identified as part of the after-action review.

  1. Mobility: Adding weight and layers and limiting mobility with a gun belt made skiing difficult. Shedding layers, stripping down duty belts even more and utilizing staged backpacks to access additional gear would improve mobility.
  2. Training: The team was well prepared but had trained for the event in ideal conditions with packed snow and sunshine. Race day brought soft powder, colder conditions and limited visibility. As weather allows, incorporating training days with different snow conditions would be an improvement.
  3. Discussion is key. Multiple fire agencies were represented during the classroom portions of the training, as well as ski patrol and the ski resort management team. We spent considerably more time discussing and defining the team’s role as an ARTF than initially planned. It was extremely helpful to have those discussions in a group setting inside prior to going on the mountain for the practical training. Taking the time to answer all questions and get everyone on the same page and comfortable with the tactics is key.
  4. Train as you play. Everyone came prepared to train on the mountain with the exact gear and uniform they would use on race day. This proved to be helpful in narrowing down what was needed, what was bulky, what didn’t work and what worked better than anticipated. It was much easier to shed gear and work through those issues leading up to the event so the team knew exactly what their uniform and gear setup would be.
  5. More time on the hill. Even though the team had an adequate amount of time to practice ARTF techniques on the ski hill, more time on the slopes would be helpful in the future. It is one thing to ski recreationally. It is more challenging to add gear, training, clothing, weight and limited mobility!
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More time on the slopes would always be helpful!

About the author

Glenn Norling is a retired FBI special agent who provides world-class special event security planning, crisis management and active shooter training and consultation services as the principal consultant at TBR Consulting. Glenn is a certified FBI crisis manager, instructor and adjunct faculty. Throughout his 20-year career, he has worked as a field investigator and field supervisory special agent, as well as a supervisory special agent with the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group in Quantico, Virginia.

Prior to the FBI, Glenn served for 10 years in the United States Air Force as an acquisition program manager, managing multimillion-dollar weapon systems and state-of-the-art modeling and simulation training systems, separating at the rank of captain. Glenn holds a BA in physics and an MA in organizational management.