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Location, Location, Location

Feb 23, 2009 8:00 AM

The meandering path to Mike Ditolla’s office seems apt for a man who has turned his love of mountainous backcountry into a life of teaching emergency wilderness rescue and medical skills: it’s a short steep climb up a set of stairs to a passageway through a long, narrow hallway, followed by two sharp left turns that form a switchback to another, smaller hallway.

This circuitous route, not unlike many mountain trails, leads to a cubbyhole office, where Ditolla, M.S., has folded and tacked together a series of quadrangle maps on the wall facing his desk. The maps comprise a complete topographic picture of the Wasatch Range, the steep canyons and jagged peaks ringing the Salt Lake Valley’s east side.

"It’s pretty much the best classroom in the world, in my opinion,” he said. And Ditolla’s opinion counts—as both teacher and student. He coordinates the Wilderness Medicine and Remote Rescue programs in the University of Utah’s Center for Emergency Programs, where he was named director in October. He’s also a doctoral student in health promotion and education in the College of Health, where he focuses on avalanche safety.

Ditolla couldn’t have landed in a better spot. The proximity of the Wasatch to a major metropolitan area makes the mountains a unique draw for rugged hiking, spectacular biking, and world-class skiing—activities that can put people at risk for the types of injuries usually encountered in wilderness areas miles from most cities. The state’s world-famous powder transforms the canyons into some of the most avalancheprone terrain in the country, if not the world.

That’s why Ditolla, who taught for eight years at the National Outdoor Leadership School, finds himself in Utah. He was recruited to the U Center for Emergency Programs to build a curriculum in wilderness medicine and remote rescue skills for training search-and-rescue teams, ski patrol members, and others responding to outdoor emergencies. This year, the Center for Emergency Programs is piloting rescue classes for those responding to avalanches and other winter backcountry emergencies.

These classes are being offered at the basic and advanced levels (for those new to the backcountry and to backcountry veterans). Enrollment is open to the community in addition to students majoring in health promotion and education. The course covers: how to evaluate and navigate snow-covered terrain, assess snowpack stability, and understand other factors that contribute to avalanche risk. In what is a unique combination, the class also offers first-aid skills and potentially life-saving care for people who are swept up in avalanches and may not be transported to a hospital for hours.

“With so many people in the Salt Lake Valley having access to the backcountry, a lot of them are very knowledgeable and trained in avalanche dangers. But there are those who aren’t as aware,” noted Ditolla, “and it only takes making the wrong call just once to pay a very high price.”

While the Wasatch help him teach, they’re also helping him learn and expand knowledge about avalanches. Ditolla’s master’s thesis was an epidemiological study of avalanche injuries that took an in-depth look at who got them; types of injuries; where, when, and how such injuries were incurred. He’s also studying how and why people make decisions that lead them into potential avalanche situations, an academic area he hopes to help expand.

“It’s our goal to develop tools that will enhance the quality of decision-making for people who venture into the backcountry. These new courses have been designed to provide participants with the entire skill set needed to deal with emergencies in the winter backcountry environment,” Ditolla said. "They have been developed in cooperation with some of the top educators in the field and represent a more integrative approach to avalanche avoidance and medical first response. We apply hands-on strategies that prepare participants to not only recover beacons buried in bags, but to provide patient care in realistic scenarios.”

The U Center for Emergency Programs offers basic and advanced classes on a range of emergency care and response: first aid; EMT (emergency medical technician) training; paramedic training; and emergency preparedness. In addition to two full-time instructors, the center draws from the expertise of 25 part-time instructors who work locally in emergency response agencies, according to Les Chatelain, M.S., instructor in health education and promotion, and former center director. As of last July, Chatelain moved to the Office of the Vice President for Administrative Services as special assistant for emergency management.

Along with professionals who are recertifying or receiving additional training, many of the center’s students are working toward a bachelor’s degree in health promotion and education. Students in this program can specialize in any of five areas:
• Community—prepares students for careers in government, nonprofits, private, and other health organizations;
• Emergency Medical Services (EMS)—offers areas-of-interest in education; management; wilderness response; disaster preparedness; and community response/fire service (which includes EMT training);
• Provider—offers pre-med and pre-dental students a broader look at health care;
• School—trains students to teach health education in grades six through 12 and offers a minor in health for students pursuing a different teaching major, but who are interested in health education; and
• Consumer health—prepares students seeking an undergraduate health-related degree who are planning for graduate school in a health-related area.

Read the complete article in Health Sciences Report.

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