It's not all thrills: Handling emergencies at the Grand Canyon National Park
Branch Chief Brandon Torres shares what it's like to work for the Grand Canyon National Park's Emergency Services program
By Sarah Calams
Tourists from all over the world and from all walks of life visit the Grand Canyon to experience and take in its jaw-dropping, magnificent views.
Now celebrating its 100th year of becoming a national park, the Arizona icon never ceases to amaze visitors. And while some take in the views, members of the Grand Canyon National Park’s Emergency Services program are ensuring that visitors have an enjoyable and safe wilderness experience.
A unique staffing profile
The program, which includes EMS, search and rescue, structural firefighting, preventive search and rescue and all-hazard incident management operations, responded to 1,054 EMS calls last year. Additionally, its members conducted 265 search and rescue operations and responded to 81 structural fire incidents.
The Grand Canyon, which is a mile deep, 277 miles long and 18 miles wide, measures 1,904 total square miles. There are approximately 3,000 permanent residents on the South Rim. And if the hotels and campgrounds are full, the population could rise to nearly 10,000 people per night. Then, throughout the course of a regular visitation day, the population swiftly increases to approximately 30,000 people.
“It's an odd profile because the district staff, who are park rangers, are also EMTs and structural firefighters, but they're primarily law enforcement officers,” said Brandon Torres, branch chief of Grand Canyon Emergency Services. “It’s an odd job of the park ranger – the ability to do a lot of different things.”
Larger national parks, like the Grand Canyon, that don't surround local communities need support services to respond to an ever-increasing call volume.
“If we were next to a big city, and they had an EMS and fire department, then we wouldn't have as big as a program as we have here,” Torres said.
The park is staffed most of the day and night. During the summer months, seasonal staff assists during peak visitation, which, Torres said, ramps up in May, June, July and August and then ramps down. However, this also poses one major problem.
“The time to hike in the desert is not in the middle of the summer,” Torres explained. “This is the battle: Our peak visitation occurs during the worst time of the year to be hiking in the backcountry.”
Even savvy desert hikers, he said, are out in the spring, fall and winter.
“It's great to visit the rim all summer long, and the vast majority of people are just going to visit the rim and walk the rim trail because it's cooler and is at a higher altitude,” he said.
When visitors take a day hike or go down to the river, that’s when a higher proportion of people run into trouble and require assistance.
Educating Grand Canyon visitors
Torres, who began his National Park Service career in 1998, said the difference-maker in helping educate visitors is through their preventative search and rescue program.
“We'll put a bunch of safety information at the trailhead, but, honestly, most people don't stop to read it,” he said. “They just blaze on by, so our strategy has got to be different to help with that.”
As a result, signage is also positioned down the trails as well as volunteers and paid staff who spend their days downhill to help educate visitors and provide an alternative idea should they need it.
“It's so unusual because most people don’t start their hike downhill in most hikes in this country,” Torres said. “But before they know it, they’ve gone maybe three or four miles down but then they have to double that coming out. The uphill part of the hike has become and it’s only gotten hotter as they descended.”
Another component of the program involves educating visitors about safe practices while on the Colorado River. Those who decide to take a river trip receive an orientation talk. Life jackets are required to be worn throughout the river corridor to help prevent potential drownings.
And, when unfortunate incidents do occur, it weighs heavily on members of the team.
Search and rescue operations
A couple of years ago, a search and rescue mission was initiated during the hottest part of the summer.
“For the folks around here, it ranks as one of the most miserable and hardest experiences,” Torres said. “We still haven’t found the person, which is really frustrating and taxing for our responders.”
Responders were searching in the wilderness while excessive heat warnings were in effect.
“Just really tough conditions for an incident like that and to have no resolution … that weighs on people,” Torres said. “When it’s that hot out and you’re really trying to search and do a good job, but also cover some ground … we really burned through our resources.”
When these types of incidents occur, Torres said it reaffirms his approach that the only people who should be in the inner canyon during the middle of the summer are his ranger staff members.
“They’ve planned their time in the inner canyon – they’ve wetted their clothes, they’ve even put a couple of ice cubes in a few pockets to give them a little more evaporative cooling,” he said. “They can go out there and do some sweeps, but we don’t want to run into anyone else.”
As far as bringing people up and out from a rescue standpoint, they are aviation-dependent. “We can land the helicopter a lot of places in the inner canyon,” Torres said.
Most of their search and rescue operations, he said, are one operation or less per day. In the middle of the summer, however, it can range anywhere from four to six missions a day.
“That wears on people,” Torres said.
And, after a long day or shift, a rest-work ratio is key.
A reminder to rest and recoup
Just like any other first responder, it’s important for members of the Emergency Services program to go home, destress and return fresh and recuperated for their next shift.
“We absolutely make people get out of here,” Torres said. “If you're hanging around on your days off, then you’re going to get sucked into another call. They need to get that separation and recuperation … it really helps rejuvenate folks.”
Their staffing model is not like most fire departments’ 24-, 48- or 72-hour shifts.
“We’re working two nine-hour shifts, so 18-hour coverage,” Torres said. “If there's a ton of callouts at night, it’s just like working at a fire department. You were just up all night and you still have your shift the next day? Then, wow, you’re out of service.”
Another difference between a typical fire department and the Emergency Services program is the requirement to wear multiple hats, but also the recognition that those who specialize in certain departments may not always be in a direct leadership role.
“There are always a few of us that are going to specialize, just like any department,” Torres said.
For example, Torres would depend on a captain, chief or battalion chief to tell him what to do during a structural fire.
“In that case, I’d fall into that subordinate role even though I’m the branch chief of the department,” he said. “Tell me what to do; I’m not in charge.”
If someone were to show up on a SAR incident, then Torres would reverse roles with the structural firefighter.
“That's pretty common in this agency – the incident commander or operations chief very well could be a subordinate member of the team,” he said. “But if they have that skillset to be the leader, then they are in charge and we’re going to fall right in behind them.”
This unique culture – albeit different than some fire or EMS departments – contributes to the program’s overall success.