Friday, January 18, 2008

Agreement gives ski patrollers insurance for backcountry rescue

Bald Mountain still top priority for patrol

Express Staff Writer

New insurance coverage from Blaine County will benefit members of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol if they are dispatched to help on rescue operations in out-of-bounds areas. However, as always, the patrol is not responsible for skiers and snowboarders in the backcountry. Photo by Jon Duval

An agreement between Blaine County, Sun Valley Co. and the Ketchum Rural Fire District will provide members of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol with workers' compensation should they be injured while participating in a backcountry rescue. However, that doesn't mean the patrol will be more likely to participate in those rescues.

"It's pretty straightforward," Blaine County Administrator Mike McNees said. "Ski patrollers are now covered for workers' comp by the state insurance fund."

McNees said the additional coverage will be added to the county's insurance policy for only a few hundred dollars per year, though the final figure has yet to be calculated.

"It will be for a minimal amount of money because there's only a small number of hours spent on this kind of rescue every year," McNees said.

Previously, ski patrollers weren't covered by the Sun Valley Co. policy when they went on a rescue out of bounds, company spokesman Jack Sibbach said. However, Mike Lloyd, director of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol, said that despite the lack of official coverage, there have been instances when a patroller incurred an injury during a backcountry rescue and that the company had always taken care of it.

While the new policy could be of great benefit to patrollers, Lloyd emphasized that it does not mean they are now responsible for skiers and snowboarders who head out of bounds.

"Everyone has to understand that they are responsible for the safety of their own party back there," Lloyd said. "As always, it's important to ski one at a time and make sure everyone is equipped with shovels and beacons in case someone gets buried."

Lloyd reiterated this importance when explaining that there will be a set procedure to work through before any ski patrollers head under the ropes.

Upon receiving a call from the county's emergency dispatch, the patrol supervisor in charge will gather more information about the incident by contacting either the Blaine County Sheriff's Office or the Ketchum Fire Department, which is responsible for the Ketchum Rural Fire District through a longstanding contract for services.

Next, Mountain Manager Mike Federko and Sun Valley General Manager Wally Huffman need to give the green light to ensure that skiers in-bounds on Bald Mountain are fully covered.

"It will be a lengthy process," Lloyd said. "Especially since we're going into uncontrolled avalanche territory. We need to minimize the risk for our patrollers."

Lloyd said the response would likely entail a "hasty team," consisting of four or five patrollers able to aid with injuries or avalanche rescue, as well as an avalanche-trained dog as long as the required minimum two dogs remain on Baldy.

Lloyd said he has been working on this type of mutual-aid agreement for the past five years.

"With the introduction of fat skis and easily accessible run-out trails, more and more people are heading out there, which means there will be more injuries," Lloyd said. "We aren't responsible, but we are the best resource already being at the top and having intimate knowledge of the mountain."

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