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Heroes: Ken Phillips, 53

A savior to injured hikers, he's training the next wave of backcountry medics.

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27-year Search-and-Rescue Veteran (NPS Photo)


Grand Canyon Emergency Staff (NPS Photo)


Preparing to save boaters at Crystal Rapids (NPS Photo)


Short Haul (NPS Photo)

As a 27-year search-and-rescue veteran with more than 2,000 SAR calls under his belt, Phillips has saved more injured hikers than he can recall. But it was one victim he couldn’t revive who motivates him to keep pushing the envelope of what’s possible when it comes to backcountry SAR operations.

The accident happened on a golden October day in 2007, when a four-year-old girl tip-toed too close to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim and tumbled 450 feet. Her father, an Air Force pilot taking his family for a rare vacation, leaped down a series of intermediate ledges while panicked bystanders called for rescue. The father started CPR. Minutes later, Phillips, chief of Grand Canyon’s emergency services at the time, was rappelling down adjacent ledges to help.

But it was too late. The little girl was pronounced dead. “A young child dying, while infrequent, sticks with any responder for a long time,” he says. It’s that empathy—for victims, their families, and fellow rescuers—that has led Phillips to become a career SAR professional, and to take on the role of leader and innovator in the field.

As the head of SAR at the Grand Canyon, he upgraded equipment, focused training on rescuer safety, and borrowed crew management techniques from the aviation industry. He literally wrote the National Park Service’s textbook for technical rescue and introduced the short haul, a helicopter-rescue technique that drastically reduces response time in harsh, rugged environments.

In 1989, Phillips unveiled the new method with great success, as his team airlifted a group of trapped boaters near Crystal Rapids on the Colorado River. Compared to the weeklong routefinding slogs of old (when a single SAR incident might require every ranger and mule in the park), today’s average rescue takes three hours start to finish, and helicopters can drop personnel into even the most formidable locations. Grand Canyon emergency staff perform more than 100 helicopter evacuations every year, and the technique is now used worldwide.

Next, Phillips will bring the high level of training and innovation he’s perfected at the Grand Canyon to park staffers nationwide. As the new NPS branch chief of search and rescue, his first project is getting the new National Search and Rescue Academy through its inaugural year. The academy, based in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Bridgeport, California, is Phillip’s effort to provide standardized SAR training to rangers and park staff across the country. “Within our profession, we have to always be vigilant,” he says. “The cost of failure can be a person’s life.”

Take it from me…

>>Don’t leave anyone behind. In my experience, splitting up rarely leads to success. I’ve dealt with numerous emergency situations where the party decided to separate. I’ll spare you the unfortunate details and say: Please just stay together.

>>Constantly assess circumstances. It’s not worth it to push on through potentially catastrophic conditions. Change plans based on what you see happening around you.

>> Don’t make impulse decisions. I’ve seen people ignore common sense and take part in something they know is dangerous, like riding a bike along the canyon edge, going boating without a lifejacket, or jumping to an outcropping for a view.

>> Research conditions. Especially in situations with high elevation, extreme weather, or off-trail routefinding, I make sure I know what I’m getting into, have a backup plan, and am ready to put it into action.

>> Communicate. Your brain is the best survival tool you have, and your friends can let you know when you aren’t using it. Bounce ideas off each other and work as a team.

>> Pack a safety backup. The cost is coming down on satellite devices that notify rescuers of your location. Bring one that has two-way communication, which allows rescuers to assess your situation and create a safe, informed rescue plan.

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