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Ham Radio Helps Out with Mountain Rescue

07/21/2009

It was a quiet afternoon on July 11 and Rich Lippucci, KI6RRQ, of Vista, California, was monitoring the Catalina Amateur Radio Association (CARA) repeater on his base station. "I heard someone come over the repeater, calling, 'Is there anybody listening?' I responded and the caller said he was on his handheld transceiver hiking around the Mt Baldy area. He was about 2.5 miles off road and resting at the wilderness San Antonio Ski Hut. A few hikers had arrived from farther in the backcountry -- one of their friends had broken an ankle and was a mile or more up the trail and they needed help." Mt Baldy is the highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains and the highest point in Los Angeles County.

Lippucci asked the caller for his call sign and name. "He told me he was Kirk Gustafson, KE6MTF," he told the ARRL. "I asked Kirk if he had a cell phone, but he told me there was no cell service where they were. I told him I would coordinate emergency services over my landline and asked for his exact location. He did an excellent job; he had a good idea of where he was and wasn't sure which county he was in, but he did have GPS coordinates."

Using his landline, Lippucci called 911 and was transferred three times until he was connected to Chelsea in the San Bernardino County Sheriff's dispatch center. "Chelsea coordinated the rescue with the San Bernardino Fire Department who sent a foot patrol to the area," he said. "The Sherriff's office dispatched a helicopter to meet someone at the ski hut to take them to where the hiker was down. It took a little less than an hour for emergency services to get above the location in a helicopter, but they were not able to land the helicopter due to the rocky terrain at the ski lift." Lippucci said that while the foot patrol and helicopter were on their way, the group of hikers had brought the injured lady down the trail to the ski hut, stabilized her leg and determined it was probably not broken. They still did not feel they could carry her out as the trail down from the wilderness ski lift was so steep." The ski hut can only be reached via a steep three mile hike and 2200 feet elevation gain.

The dispatcher told Lippucci that the helicopter would perform a skid rescue where a crew member suspends a bed basket from the helicopter; the victim is secured and pulled back up to the helicopter. The dispatchers asked Lippucci to relay back to Gustafson, asking if the group needed anything, such as food or water. Gustafson relayed back that they didn't need anything. "After about 15 minutes from arriving on site, the helicopter and its crew got the victim airlifted out successfully without further complications," Lippucci said. Gustafson took a video of the rescue with his cell phone that you can see here.

Gustafson and Lippucci -- both ARRL members -- have been in contact since that Saturday afternoon. "Since the incident, Kirk informed me that the injured lady was around 40 years old and that there were up to 15 hikers hanging around the ski hut, some of which were search and rescue volunteers on vacation," he told the ARRL. "They had some kind of radios with them, but their batteries where dead. Kirk said when he got out of his car to start his hike, he grabbed his handheld transceiver radio and GPS. His friends told him 'That's just extra weight -- you won't need that.' He told them, 'I go nowhere without my radio. If I need to call for help, the only way I would be able to let them know where I am is with GPS. I'm bringing them.' I don't think they will say that next time! Kirk said that one of them decided they need to look into getting a ticket and radio and that the search and rescue folks said they were going to look into getting ham radio licenses."

Lippucci said that ham radio saved the day: "A handheld radio, hitting a local wide-area repeater, was what was needed when cell and landline phones were not available. Many thanks to the CARA club for their awesome reach in Southern California on 2 meters. Thanks also to those on the air that where very gracious to respect the traffic and keep communications open during the rescue. This is such an excellent example of the benefits of ham radio. If people had to hike out of the wilderness, get to their cars and find a cell signal, they might have been pushing up against the loss of daylight hours. Any rescue would have been significantly more difficult in the dark."

Lippucci told the ARRL that 911 and the Sherriff's office in San Bernardino accepted the ham radio call without hesitation. "They used a ham radio operator to relay questions to Kirk through me, to gain all the information they wanted and needed to put assets on the emergency," he said. "It was as if I was calling about something in my own backyard, even though the problem was several counties away in the mountains, with people I didn't know. I am proud to have had the opportunity to use my license in service of an emergency situation. As a CERT member, this was the very reason I got my ham radio license in the first place!" -- Information provided by Rich Lippucci, KI6RRQ



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