Salmon, Idaho: June 1-9, 2015, the National Rookie Rappel Training was held at Salmon Airbase in Salmon, Idaho. A total of 95 rookie rappelers, along with 75 incident command positions and trainers were part of a national standard performance based training program. This is the fourth year this national training has been held in Salmon. The mission of the Forest Service Rappeler is primarily initial attack.
All twelve rappel bases in the nation were represented throughout the week. The bases came from four Forest Service regions:
Six rappel bases located in Region 6
· Wenatchee Valley (Washington)
· Sled Springs (Enterprise, Oregon)
· Blue Mountain Rappel Base (LaGrande, Oregon)
· Malheur (John Day, Oregon)
· Central Oregon Rappel Base (Prineville, Oregon)
· Siskiyou Rappel Base (Grants Pass, Oregon)
Three rappel bases located in Region 4
· Price Valley (New Meadows, Idaho)
· Lucky Peak (Boise, Idaho)
· Salmon Rappel Base (Salmon, Idaho)
One rappel base located in Region 1
· Shenango (Bozeman, Montana)
Two rappel bases located in Region 5
· Sierra Heli-rappellers (Trimmer, California)
· Scott Valley Rappel Base (Fort Jones, California)
Rappelling was introduced by the military in the 1950’s. The Forest Service began rappelling in the 1960’s in California. The first Forest Service rappel was in 1963 on the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon. From 1973-76, the Pacific Northwest Region had five rappel bases. Due to cost, in 1983 the rappel program was terminated in the Forest Service. Rappelling was reintroduced by light aircraft in 1986. In 2009, the program was reassessed due to a tragic rappel accident on the Backbone Fire near Willow Creek, California. These events led to the development of a national standard of rappelling throughout the Forest Service which promotes the highest level of safety and unification of rappel resources throughout the nation.
National Rappel training is not your typical Forest Service training. It is a strict four part performance based training. The four sections are classroom, ground training, tower training, and helicopter training. A trainee cannot move onto the next section of the training without passing the previous section. If they fail to pass a section the trainee cannot become a certified heli-rappeler. Performance is evaluated by infractions known as “majors” or “minors”. A minor is a mistake made by the rappeler that if left uncorrected could jeopardize safety of rappeler or put the aircraft or crew at risk. A major is mistake by the rappeler that if left uncorrected could cause serious injury or death to the rappeler or put the aircraft and crew at risk. Three minors make up a major. If a rappeler acquires three majors, their training will be terminated.
Students were broke into four classes of 24-25 trainees with two lead trainers, one check spotter, three to four spotters (plus two to three trainee spotters) and two squad leaders per squad. This shows the dedication and focus on training and safety; there are nearly as many training personnel as students in each squad.
After a two hour classroom session reviewing the history, equipment, and buddy check procedures, trainees move outside to complete hands on training on properly using equipment and completing buddy checks. The learn how to properly use the decent device also known as a genie. Repetition is crucial and perfect performance is demanded.
Once the squad has mastered the ground section of training, they move onto the tower. Trainees start on the low tower to learn proper rappel procedures and once mastered, move onto the high tower. After tower work, trainees complete “mock-ups” either in the two simulators located at the base, or in one of the six helicopters assigned to the academy. The final training section is live rappelling from the helicopters where trainees first rappel on a flat ground and work through ETO (Emergency Tie Off) procedures. The final portion includes three rappels per trainee at Haynes Creek, where trainees are exposed to typical terrain rappels. Each trainee must complete a minimum of eight rappels throughout the week.
Training does not stop with this academy. Training is season long. Rappelers must stay current and complete one rappel every 14 days throughout the season.