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When calling 911 is not an option: Course teaches wilderness first aid and rescue

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Imagine being on a hike with friends somewhere in Southern Illinois. You are seemingly miles from anyone and anywhere, and it’s a perfect day – until the natural ambience is interrupted by the sounds of rustled leaves, broken branches and frantic cries for help.


Participants in the Wilderness First Responder course treat simulated patients during a training exercise at the Touch of Nature Environmental Center on Wednesday. The 72-hour course covers a variety of topics including patient assessment, equipment improvisation and wilderness rescue tactics.

Knowing what to do and how to do it in cases of accident, illness, injury or environmental danger can be the difference between an inconvenience and a tragedy.

A wilderness first responder certification course is concluding this week at Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Touch of Nature Environmental Center, where participants have been learning how to act in these unexpected circumstances.

The course teaches outdoor enthusiasts, trail guides, and emergency personnel how to handle emergencies which may involve prolonged patient care in wilderness settings and how to do so with improvised equipment.


Participants in the Wilderness First Responder course practice treatment techniques on each other prior to a field exercise on Wednesday at the Touch of Nature Environmental Center.

“This training really is needed for anybody who likes to go outside themselves or with others. If things do happen, then they will be able to handle it better,” said Clayton Sheehan of the Brevard College Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education Program. Sheehan completed the course at Touch of Nature last year.

The two-week training included classroom instruction and practical simulations each day. Upon completion of the course, participants receive a three-year certification Wilderness Medical Associates, the training company that provides instructors for the course. A second, shorter course for re-certification is offered later this month.

“It is basically a first aid and CPR course designed for people who like to find themselves in the middle of the wilderness – places where an ambulance or EMT can’t readily get to quickly,” explained Brian Croft, assistant director for outdoor education recreation at Touch of Nature. “It teaches what to do if typical first aid is not necessarily enough or if you might be an hour hike from the trailhead and then another 30-minute ambulance drive to a hospital.”

Croft, who has been certified through the training since 2008, said the course is perfect for those who love the outdoors and often bring other people with them.

“Participants will learn things like what happens if somebody has an allergic reaction to a bee sting or what if you are dealing with a severe asthma attack in the field or other things where you don’t have an option to just call an ambulance,” he said. “It’s a very intense, in-depth training on what it means to be a first responder even if you are not what we think of as a first responder.”

Sheehan said the course gives a valuable perspective.

“It builds confidence in that you will be able to handle things if somebody gets hurt on a trip into the woods or wilderness,” he said.

He added the role-playing parts of the course – covering everything from dislocated shoulders to cuts, snake bites and broken bones – have been especially helpful.

“You go through these dangerous scenarios like a swarm of bees or a rock fall and you learn to assess the scene, making sure it is safe to go in and then once you are in, you know how to assess the patient and what to do,” he said. “Obviously, you are not going to be a doctor after a few days, but you do have the tools to figure out what needs to be done.”

Croft called this portion of the training learning to be a “medical detective.”

He explained, “You learn to discover why someone isn’t feeling well and give you a structure to treat them accordingly as long as it is the scope of your medical ability. It helps you determine what the injury is, does there need to be an evacuation and how quickly does that evacuation need to happen?”

Participants in the course have included scout leaders, emergency responders, park rangers and outdoor enthusiasts.

“If someone tells me they want to get into the field of outdoor recreation, this is probably the first certification I recommend to them,” Croft added.


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