Rescuing patients in rural, isolated areas can be a challenge. Paramedics and emergency response teams would normally approach a patient on foot or hop into a helicopter to reach patients stuck in the mountains or the middle of a national park, both of which can be dangerous, expensive, and ultimately, not that effective.
We all know time is precious in emergency care situations. That’s why a British company known as Gravity Industries is working on building a jet suit for emergency care providers. Yes, your Star Wars fantasy may finally come true. Developers teamed up with a group of local paramedics to test the device in Northern England, which is known for its rural towns and steep cliffs. Find out how it went.
Flying to Save Lives
Gravity Industries has been working on getting folks up in the air for a while. Led by engineer Richard Browning, the company has been experimenting with its signature jet suit, putting on shows and demonstrations for people all over the world.
Things took a turn when the Great North Air Ambulance, a non-profit organization in Northern England, reached out to them with a proposition. The charity oversees a dedicated helicopter emergency service for the North England area that includes three aircrafts. They asked Gravity Industries if its product could be used in emergency care situations.
Now, several months later, the company took a prototype of its jet suit into the mountains to see if it could be used to rescue a patient in need. They set up a test scenario in which Browning would use the jet suit to race into the mountains to save a 10-year-old girl that had fallen and broken a leg. The experiment would show whether having someone in a jet suit was any safer or faster than having EMTs pile into a helicopter to complete the same task.
The results of the study speak for themselves.
On the day of the experiment, Browning says he reached the “test patient” in just 90 seconds, instead of the 25 minutes it would have taken to hike there on foot.
When he gets up in the air, Browning says, “It is pretty hard to describe. It is the most free, liberating, kind of dreamlike state you get.” They recorded the entire rescue on video.
The Future of Emergency Care?
The new design is turning heads in and out of the medical industry. Paramedics say they are impressed with how fast Browning can move through the mountains, but more work needs to be done before these jet suits become the face of emergency care.
Currently, the National Park Service spends nearly $5 million annually on search and rescue (SAR) missions, and that doesn’t include the cost of hundreds of thousands of man hours that go into these searches. Recent reports also suggest that the U.S. is lagging when it comes to SAR operations.
Some national parks have contracts that automatically cover the expense of calling a helicopter, but many do not. That means hikers and campers are left with two choices: they can either wait for EMTs to reach them on foot and then carry them down on a stretcher, which could take hours, or they can pay for their own private helicopter ride, which can easily cost thousands of dollars.
More people are spending time in nature than ever before, thanks in large part to the coronavirus pandemic. Demographic shifts are also sending more people to rural areas, but this puts more pressure on SAR teams that are already feeling the pinch. The Forest Service reports that in 2016, some five million more visitors hit the 193 million acres of public land it manages compared with a decade earlier.
Paramedics say urban-wildland zones tend to cause the most problems. This is when city dwellers have easy access to nature. Someone looking for the perfect Instagram video can easily get lost or injure themselves if they’re new to the territory.
Many SAR teams are made up of volunteers that must pass strict field tests before signing up. These kinds of operations can be rare, so paying for full-time staff doesn’t always make a lot of sense. Volunteers will then contact the military or private firms if they need to use a helicopter, but it can take several hours for the aircraft to arrive.
Jeff Sparhawk, president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, a volunteer group, says relying on volunteers like himself can be tough. “People who work nine-to-five jobs are getting paged out of work at least 150 times a year. That’s a tall ask.”
Currently, the U.S. national park system sees an average of 150 to 170 accidental deaths annually, but that may not be enough to warrant a massive overhaul of our country’s SAR operations. The American landscape is also vast and diverse. Creating a single approach to the terrain wouldn’t be easy, which is why parks tend to rely on volunteers.
We may see jet suits land in the U.S., but probably not any time soon. As Sparhawk says, “Ultimately, America isn’t likely to get a major search and rescue overhaul until more people die.”