Birch Hill partners with MEDDAC for community safety

By Daniel NelsonMarch 25, 2024

Birch Hill partners with MEDDAC for community safety
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Members of the Birch Hill Ski and Snowboard Area ski patrol conduct lift evacuation training. The training is done in conjunction with Fort Wainwright Fire and EMS to execute a good lift evacuation. (Photo by Maj. Melissa Perkins, Medical Department Activity-Alaska) (Photo Credit: Fort Wainwright Public Affairs Office) VIEW ORIGINAL
Birch Hill partners with MEDDAC for community safety
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A member of the Fort Wainwright community safely skips across the pond at the 2024 Slush Cup held at the Birch Hill Ski and Snowboard Area on March 16. The event brings together the Soldiers, Family members and Civilians of Fort Wainwright to celebrate the arrival of spring in the Alaskan Interior. (Photo by Daniel Nelson, U.S. Army Garrison Alaska, Fort Wainwright Public Affairs) (Photo Credit: Daniel Nelson) VIEW ORIGINAL

Winter sports enthusiasts and newcomers to Alaska alike find thrilling experiences at Fort Wainwright’s Birch Hill Ski and Snowboard Area. But on the snow-covered hill, safety is paramount. Thanks to a dedicated ski patrol team, Birch Hill ensures a safer environment for all visitors. The Birch Hill Ski and Snowboard Area’s annual season finale event called the Slush Cup took place March 16, bringing together almost a thousand members of the community at the hill’s lodge.

In past seasons, the responsibility of ensuring safety on the slope fell to just one or two full-time employees comprising the ski patrol team. Overtaxed, there was a definite need to bolster Birch Hill’s ski patrol numbers for both regular operations and large events like the Slush Cup. Born of necessity, a partnership formed to meet this goal.

The cornerstone of this collaboration lay in the strategic partnership forged between Medical Department Activity-Alaska and the Department of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation. Maj. Melissa Perkins, a provider for MEDDAC-AK, underscored the significance of this partnership, emphasizing its role in tackling the unique challenges posed by the Arctic environment.

“I got here in 2021; I was actually trained on ski patrol when I was stationed at Fort Drum, and was looking to see if Birch Hill had a ski patrol when I first got here,” stated Perkins. “At that time, they had one or two full-time members, which for any kind of patient response, that can be really risky.”

The following season, she reached out to Birch Hill and asked if they had a procedure for recruiting new members to the ski patrol, volunteering to lead the initiative. They conveyed their ongoing struggle to keep sufficient patroller numbers, frequently managing with only one or two individuals on duty.

“I knew what the process was to become a National Ski Patroller because I'd done it prior to moving here,” said Perkins. “I started telling people some great things about what doing Ski Patrol offers, and I mentioned it to my leadership at MEDDAC for them to be aware of the opportunity for Soldiers wanting to look for off-duty volunteer opportunities.”

Dustin Adams, the business operations officer with the DFMWR that operates Birch Hill, echoed Perkins' sentiments. He said that ski patrol is about more than just responding to emergencies – it is about fostering a culture of safety and camaraderie within the community.

"Our partnership with MEDDAC has been instrumental in enhancing our capabilities and ensuring the safety of everyone on the ski hill," emphasized Adams. “Having our MEDDAC volunteers plus up our paid patrollers here is critical for us to be able to run. We have a lot of novice skiers and snowboarders that come out here, so we do see a fair amount of injuries. It's great to be able to train in this environment that we have.”

As the Slush Cup approached, Perkins and her Ski Patrol team worked to ensure the event's success. From coordinating medical response teams to providing logistical support, their efforts were integral to the seamless execution of the festivities.

For Perkins, the Slush Cup was more than just a celebration of a successful ski season and a fun day for the Fort Wainwright community – it was a testament to the strength of collaboration and unity that goes into ensuring the safety of participants, as well as the lessons learned and the vision for the future of ski patrol operations.

Capt. Jesse King, a physician’s assistant assigned to the 1st Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 11th Airborne Division, a dedicated member of Birch Hill ski patrol, highlighted the invaluable support provided by MEDDAC in navigating the logistical complexities of ski patrol operations.

“We're responsible for opening the hill, ensuring that any obstacles are bounded off. We mark the jumps and provide medical care to any skier that is injured, either on the hill or that walks in here to the ski patrol office,” stated King. “At the end of the day, we close out the hill making sure no one's left on the hill. We also always ensure that we have good communication with the hospital and EMS here on Fort Wainwright for when we do have injuries.”

Their training went beyond the classroom, extending to practical scenarios that simulated real-world emergencies. Patient transportation and lift evacuation training were integral components of this process, ensuring that ski patrollers were well-prepared to handle any situation that might arise on the slopes.

“We run our own lift evacuation training in case the lift ever ceases to function while people are on it; we've trained not just with ourselves but also in conjunction with Fort Wainwright Fire and EMS to execute a good lift evacuation,” King said.

Perkins and her team spared no effort in ensuring that safety measures for the Slush Cup were meticulously planned and executed. From coordinating medical response teams to conducting safety inspections, their efforts were integral to the smooth operation of the festivities.

“We'll be right here next to you if anything happens, hopefully providing people with a little extra comfort to get out there and try stuff,” added Perkins.

Volunteering for the Birch Hill ski patrol brings a host of valuable opportunities. As part of the National Ski Patrol certification process, volunteers receive training in Outdoor Emergency Care, equipping them with crucial skills for handling medical emergencies in outdoor environments.

Additionally, volunteers gain confidence and experience in skiing or riding snowmachines, essential for navigating mountain terrain safely. Beyond certification and skills, volunteers are provided extra time on Birch Hill while contributing to the safety and well-being of the Fort Wainwright community.