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McClellan Trails Set The Stage for AFD Wilderness Safety & Rescue Training

Helicopter flies with gurney attached*

A few times a year, McClellan trail goers and passersby can see a helicopter wavering overhead, while Anniston Fire Department trainees on the ground below secured dummy bodies to an aerial gurney suspended from the aircraft. This training is part of a 40-hr Wilderness Rescue Certification course through the Alabama Fire College in cooperation with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, which prepares trainees for packaging and flying victims out of wilderness sites. Anniston Fire Department trains at the McClellan Multi-Use Trails quarterly to stay familiar with the skills and procedures associated with the specialized rescue.

This particular training course through the AFC has anywhere from 12 to 25 students, with two instructors per 12 students (a Lead and an Assistant). In the past five years, Anniston Fire Department has helped train students from 16 states and three different countries. “We hope to offer such an exclusive course with the MDA’s cooperation,” said Assistant Fire Chief Johnnie Phelps, “that we can host this [training] multiple times a year.”

Student portrays a victim preparing to be lifted*

To earn their certification, students must accomplish a long list of criteria in their wilderness emergency response, including conducting a search of and navigating the wilderness environment, stabilizing and removing a victim from the site, conducting witness interviews, collecting evidence, and demonstrating basic survival techniques. If students successfully complete training objectives and pass by at least 70% on the AFC written exam, they receive dual certification with Pro Board and the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress, which also meets Department of Defense requirements and is recognized by 48 states.

Anniston Fire Department has 20 personnel with these certifications and, according to Assistant Chief Phelps, they use these skills fairly often in the community. “They come in handy for lost/injured victims in any rural environment. It requires a whole new set of skills when outside the urban environment of the municipality — Coldwater Mountain, McClellan, or even a lost child in a neighborhood in Saks with a couple of acres of woods. Our goal is positive outcomes.”

For wilderness search and rescue operations, Anniston Fire Department uses various specialized equipment, including ATVs, electric bikes, trail blazing equipment, and, of course, a helicopter. “The MDA has been very supportive,” said Assistant Chief Phelps. “They provided $20k [towards] support equipment to help our response — equipment that AFD couldn’t afford and was vital to a successful rescue. I think it is imperative that we work together to provide the highest level of response to our citizens. They expect it and deserve it. We are appreciative of MDA’s support and couldn’t be prepared without it.”

Students practice using lift equipment*

When heading out into the wilderness, AFD recommends the following tips to ensure a safe trip:

  1. Be situationally aware.

  2. Study the area you are planning to enjoy (maps, topography, exit routes, and dangers).

  3. Make sure you understand self-rescue techniques.

  4. Understand how emergency response works in wilderness environments and the amount of time and manpower it can take.

  5. Always be prepared for survival with water, shelter, warmth, food, and communication.

For more information about wilderness safety, contact Assistant Fire Chief Johnnie Phelps at the Anniston Fire Department at and 256-231-7644. For inquiries about the McClellan Multi-Use Trails, contact the McClellan Development Authority at and 256-236-2011.

*Photos taken during training session in Fall 2022


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