Glad I Had My Mittens

For those of you that read my last blog you’ll recall that I emphasized Chris Sharpe’s “dress to egress” philosophy. That blog came at a time of the year when it is not uncommon for temperatures and wind chills to drop below -20F in my part of the country. Like Chris, the dress to egress philosophy is a strongly held belief of mine. While I’m sure it is partly rooted in all those years of rainy and muddy Boy Scout campouts, above and beyond the repressed memories of soaked feet, damp sleeping bags and having to drink coffee at an early age just to keep warm (We ran out of hot chocolate right away!), being prepared and being dressed to egress just makes sense. While this diatribe may, at face value, seem like a rehash of my last blog, it is rather a personal account of a series of events that re-emphasized my gut instinct to dress to egress. So, that being said, let’s get to it.

It was a dark and stormy night… Well, kind of. Around mid-February of this year, we had just come out of our typical arctic snap, and by that I mean temperatures were finally into the double digits. Not very far into the double digits but after a few weeks of sub-zero temperatures, twelve degrees feels like a heatwave. While working one of my typical twenty-four hour shifts, we happened to decline an early morning flight due to a brief, yet intense, winter storm that had drifted its way into our state. As a result my partner and I were tasked to meet up with a ground crew just over an hour north of us and jump on board with a critical patient that they had. No biggie. As flight crew, we are not assigned a dedicated ground rig and typically just grab whichever ambulance is around. As we were still in the middle of the before mentioned winter storm, and knowing that plows don’t typically hit the major state roads here until four or five in the morning, I opted to take the one remaining diesel rig we had simply for the weight aspect (i.e., it is heavier). Now, it is fairly well-known that this particular rig is the oldest in the fleet and requires a little bit of extra love, however once it warms up, it runs like a champ. The second pertinent tidbit is that this particular rig, as you may have suspected, is a backup rig and while all of the required equipment is aboard things tend to get robbed from it from time to time. This will become important later. As we were getting ourselves together, I had a fleeting thought about not putting my warm fuzzies (aka long underwear) on because, “Ehhhhh, it’s just a quick ground run.”

Heading out into the snowy darkness and unplowed state highways, contact was made with the other crew who advised their patient was maintaining and asked that we just follow behind them “just in case.” Great! No problem! About halfway to the receiving hospital, and without warning, the engine on our rig died, leaving us to coast (more like ski) to the side of the road. After stopping, we quickly figured out that the engine was not going to be restarted, and we were not going anywhere. With no engine, that also meant no heat. Kind of important in the winter. 

Around here, when roads are snow-covered and not plowed, lane discipline goes right out the window, and a two-lane road tends to turn into a one-lane road pretty quickly. As such, my first thought was whether we were far enough off to the side of the road so as to not get hit. Determining that we were in a safe-ish spot, we contacted dispatch and notified them of our predicament. They advised it would be about an hour or so, but there were other rigs in the general area that would be able to come pick us up after their respective patients had been dropped off. Excellent! To conserve heat a bit, while we waited for our ride we closed the door that goes between the rear and front compartments of the rig.

Since we were clearly stuck, and the weather was not all that desirable (no roadside picnics this trip), I decided to take the opportunity to pull out the rig’s survival bag and turn our situation into a dry-run survival scenario of sorts… except remember I mentioned that the backup rig tends to be the proverbial grocery store Yeeeeaaaahhhhh… you can see where I’m going with this. Luckily I had listened to the little voices in my head and decided to put on my warm fuzzies before I left the hangar, so hypothermia was not going to be an issue for me. That and I, of course, brought along my warm winter coat that I always stash a warm hat, gloves and a few other goodies in for such an occasion. If all else failed, I had my personal survival kit in my right leg pocket, and of course the ever important snacks in my left leg pocket, that I could duck into should it become necessary, which I knew it likely wouldn’t. We were going to be just fine.

While we were sitting there, I kept mulling over the various ways that this scenario could have played out differently. My first thought was that, thankfully, this situation was not taking place the week prior with wind chills in the -40F to -60F range, a temperature that can turn any vehicle into a cooler pretty quickly. In that instance I surmised that, should it have become necessary, we would likely have been able to arrange a pickup by one of the local deputies or state troopers. We did see a few on the road that morning/evening, so this conclusion seemed plausible. If our phones or radio did not work, we were on a major(ish) state highway, so it was likely we would have been seen during the course of a routine patrol. Should all that fail, our vehicles are all equipped with GPS trackers, so eventually dispatch would send someone to our last known location. As an interesting aside, prior to our vehicles having GPS trackers installed, it was fairly commonplace for us to activate some sort of GPS tracking app on our personal phones, so our dispatchers could see where we were and not have to call for regular status reports. My next thought was that, one again thankfully, I listened to the little Chris Sharpe on my shoulder telling me to “dress to egress”. My last thought was basically a reinforcement of my strongly held belief that you always need to have a Plan B no matter the scenario. In this case, our survival bag was missing, so I would have defaulted to what I had on my person. In the aviation theater, this can be likened to performing an emergency landing and either forgetting to grab your survival bag as you egress or otherwise having it unavailable for any number of reasons, thus having to rely solely on what you have on your person.   

Lessons learned? Maybe not learned per-se but, rather, reinforced. The first reinforced lesson is to always be prepared. This lesson is also synonymous to the philosophy of always having a Plan B prepared and in the ready, as well as dress to egress. You never know when the course of your situation will make an abrupt trajectory change at which point you’ll still have to function or, worse yet, survive. The second lesson is always check your gear and your rig thoroughly. Assuming something is there can get you in trouble. The third lesson is the idea that two is one and one is none; a common theme both in the survival world, as well as a world where your partner always forgets their pen. This philosophy essentially equates to assuring vital things, in this case a survival kit, have a dedicated backup should your primary not be available. Fourth, never be afraid to turn a situation into a training scenario. There’s nothing like a hands-on real-world situation to let you exercise policies, procedures and emergency plans in a way that a discussion simply cannot duplicate. Lastly, always trust those little voices in your head…. no matter who they look like! 

Stay safe out there. 

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