First help in a wilderness emergency |

First help in a wilderness emergency

By Amanda Fehd

Tribune staff writer

If you were to suffer a heart attack at the mall or start choking on your chicken nugget at a restaurant, chances are there is someone around who could save your life because they have been trained in CPR and first aid.

But what if you were out in the wilderness, more than an hour away from medical help, when you or a friend are seriously injured? In this case, you’ll be lucky if someone close by is certified in wilderness first response.

First responders – it’s inherent in the name – are trained to act as the first person on the scene of an emergency and keep you in good shape until a trained medical professional is available.

Lake Tahoe Community College offers a course in wilderness first response every quarter but winter.

“The class is designed to give people the skills they need to do a good assessment, treat properly and make an appropriate evacuation plan,” said Jim Bitner, who has been teaching the course for four seasons. Bitner has been an EMT and ski patroller at Sierra-at-Tahoe for more than 20 years.

He’s seen the worst of the worst in his life.

In the intensive 9-day immersion, students delve into every possible topic, from bug bites to hypothermia, from diabetic emergencies to spinal injuries.

First responders learn how to stop bleeding, splint broken bones, stabilize the spine, recognize signs of shock and dehydration, and to know when it’s time to get the patient out of the wilderness immediately.

The final exam is a simulated emergency in the backcountry where students must make the right decisions in order for their patient to survive.

The classes often include mountain guides, river rafting guides, ski patrollers and U.S. Forest Service employees who need the certification for their job.

Bitner also sees a lot of backcountry skiers, climbers, hikers and hunters in his class.

“It’s rewarding for me to do this class because not only do students thank me profusely but also just knowing there are that many more people in the backcountry who know what to do in case of an emergency,” he said.

Bitner sports a mountain man’s tan indicative of decades of skiing and climbing in the Sierra. Many lessons are reinforced with real-life scenarios from his life as an outdoorsman.

By the end of the course, students affectionately referred to him among themselves as the “Sierra Sage.”

Bitner will teach a beginner and intermediate course in rock climbing this October at LTCC and is in the process of designing a self rescue course for climbers for the spring.