Heli-Ski U.S. Association Safety Programs & what it means to be a Certified Member.
By 2002, it had become apparent to the HSUS board of directors that there was a need for formal heli-ski/snowboard industry guidelines as a means to create standardization and provide a basis for evaluating the merits of individual operations and member firms. Though HSUS tasked a corporate attorney turned heli-ski guide to draft the Helicopter Skiing Safety & Operating Guidelines (HSOG [link]), the end product reflected the best thinking and experience of our members, many of whom were the industry’s pioneers. Today, that combined experience exceeds 330 years and as our experience in this dynamic industry grows, so does our knowledge base and commitment to client safety. Though HSUS initially treated the HSOG as a proprietary program, following a series of accidents by firms that were not members of our Association, in 2014 we published the document on our website and invited non-member firms to utilize the program as a means of lowering their risk of accidents. Importantly, it is HSUS’s Performance Review Process that assures the public that a firm has actually embraced and implemented the HSOG. Without that auditing process, even a good-faith attempt at implementation may fall short in critical areas.
CERTIFIED MEMBERS OF HSUS
The process of becoming a member of HSUS requires a minimum of three years. After signing an agreement by which they consent to be reviewed and agree to abide by the HSOG, applicant firms are given one year to bring their programs into compliance. In the second year, HSUS sends its Performance Reviewer to evaluate the applicant firm’s safety and operations programs and make recommendations for changes and upgrades. In the final year, the Performance Reviewer and a member of the HSUS’s board of directors spend 3 to 5 days with the applicant, looking at everything from avalanche forecasting and documentation to guide resumes and certifications to emergency response packs. If the report of the Performance Reviewer and board member meets with the approval of the full board of directors, the company becomes a “Certified Member” of HSUS.
To maintain their Certified Member Status, all HSUS firms are regularly evaluated for conformity to the HSOG program. Firms that do not score an “A” in critical performance categories are placed on corrective action plans and subject to re-review the following season. Firms with repeated deficiencies are subject to suspension and/or termination of membership. HSUS’ principal Performance Reviewer has more than 20 years of experience in the helicopter skiing/snowboarding industry and is independent of all firms in the Association. By consistently applying cold, impartial judgment while also encouraging development of new means of mitigating risk, our Performance Reviewer has earned the respect of the entire industry and its insurers, which provide discounts to HSUS Certified Members.
Through its Performance Review Process, HSUS has developed an inventory of industry Best Practices that are shared amongst our members each year. It is considered an honor to have one or more of a firm’s practices included on the Best Practices inventory and our members compete to be included there. As Best Practices are implemented and proved effective by other firms in the Association, they are frequently adopted by the Association and added to our HSOG as that document is updated.
Member firms are required to have written Operating Plans that delineate the conditions, locations and circumstances under which the firm will operate. While some nonmember firms like to promote their nomad-like operations, it is our view that a firm cannot develop critical snowpack stability knowledge or localized terrain familiarity in those circumstances. Moreover, professional emergency planning and training requires close relationships with local search and rescue, medical and backcountry evacuation resources, not assumptions that others will come to your aid, should an emergency arise.
EMERGENCY RESPONSE PLANNING
HSUS member firms are required to develop, implement, and train around detailed Emergency Response Plans that include medical and trauma emergencies, avalanche emergencies, aircraft emergencies, high-angle rescue and environmental emergencies. For each form of emergency, firms are required to maintain emergency response packs which contain everything from advanced first aid equipment like AED’s to ice screws, climbing ropes and fuel spill containment kits.
HSUS recognizes three classes of guides: Associate Guides, Guides and Lead Guides; the qualification requirements for each are very high. To become a full Guide, an individual must have as many as 50 days of Associate or “tail guide” experience over a period of at least two years, advanced first aid skills in the form of Wilderness First Responder, Outdoor Emergency Care Technician, Wilderness EMT or other equivalent medical training, and advanced avalanche forecasting training. As of January 2019, all Guides must have Professional Level 2 Avalanche Forecaster Certifications , the highest training available in the United States. Nearly all of our Guides have already reached this high plateau.
Every HSUS member is required to appoint a Safety Officer who has responsibility to see that operations are conducted in compliance with the HSOG and the firm’s Operating Plan, to schedule and coordinate internal training, (especially around the Emergency Response Plan), to inventory and control emergency response packs and to assure that all Guide qualifications are properly documented.
HSUS member firms are required to employ professional snow stability and weather forecasters. The data collection and forecasting standards used by our members are the equal of the very best in the world. Every day, new weather and snow stability forecasts are prepared and those form the basis for daily operations planning.
PILOTS AND AIRCRAFT
HSUS minimum requirements for pilots and helicopters greatly exceed FAA requirements. A Lead Pilot must have at least 2,000 total hours, 1,000 hours of rotorcraft experience, and 250 hours of mountain flying experience or specialized mountain flying training. All aircraft must have IFR instrumentation, communication equipment that allows pilots to speak with guides, dispatch personnel and other aircraft, specialized landing gear, large volume external baskets for skis and snowboards and emergency support equipment for winter, mountain environments.