The Big Four Ice Caves are beautiful yet dangerous. The area is prone to avalanches and the caves are unstable, capable of dropping lethal chunks of ice at any time. And they’re remote, with no cell coverage and limited radio coverage
Yet the caves are also impressive, easy to access and extremely popular.
For all of these reasons, the site is ideal for training exercises for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s department, Forest Service, fire departments, Snohomish County volunteer search and rescue, Airlift Northwest, SnoCom911, and the Snohomish County Emergency Radio System.
The agencies held another training session recently, the fifth year at the ice caves. A major goal is to improve communication and make sure everyone is on the same frequency, literally.
Managing communication is tricky in such a remote area. There are multiple radio frequencies, some of which don’t work at the ice caves. There are channels for those in rescue vehicles, those with hand-held radios and those in aircraft.
All of the teams involved in the search and rescue process need to know which radio frequency to use, and when to use it. It’s all complex, and agencies need to practice frequently, said Bill Quistorf, chief pilot for the Snohomish County Sheriff.
Both the Oso landslide and the bridge collapse on I-5 helped highlight the importance of a clear communications plan and the value of training.
Quistorf was the exercise controller for the recent training at the ice caves. He said that repeating training like this each year has a lot of value.
“Even though we’ve done this before, we have new people on board, we have new deputies and we have new firefighters,” he said. “The new people haven’t practiced it. … We have to make sure everybody understands it before there’s a big incident.”
In the scenario, the ice caves had partially collapsed and two people had been hurt. Anissa Smith, a Forest Service field ranger who frequently works at Big Four, received the alert of the incident and was the first responder on the scene.
Smith has spent a lot of time working at the Ice Caves. She’s very aware of the real danger of a catastrophic accident. She’s seen many injuries, major and minor.
While the Forest Service has repeatedly cautioned about the dangers of the ice caves, many people still get too close or even go inside the caves.
This year, after such a dry, warm winter, Smith says the caves look particularly unstable. “This is the first time I’ve seen them look so dilapidated,” she said. “It’s really scary looking.”
Smith has participated in the training for several years, but this was her first time serving as a first responder.
“Being in the rotor wash of a helicopter was intense,” she said.
While she’d felt the rotor wash before, it was a different experience to feel it while trying to care for a patient and keep all the gear secure.
Part of the goal of this training, Quistorf said, was to practice dealing with an incident with multiple patients. For the first time, Airlift Northwest participated. The helicopter crew and medics practiced transferring a patient from the sheriff’s helicopter to the Airlift Northwest helicopter.
In the event of a massive incident, the sheriff’s helicopter has the gear to lower rescuers to the ground and lift patients back up. Airlift Northwest doesn’t have that gear, but could ferry patients to hospitals while the sheriff’s helicopter returned to evacuate more patients.
Quistorf said it was useful to practice the transfer and coordinating between multiple helicopters. Finding spots for the helicopters to land would be a logistical challenge at the ice caves, he said. Practicing it and scouting out the location helped him and the other rescuers plan what could work in the future.
The trainings are “really to find out where our weaknesses are if there is a major response. … If we don’t keep doing it, we’re not proficient at it.”