Wilderness Emergency Responder course teaches life-saving skills

Wilderness Emergency Responder course teaches important life-long skills

April 12, 2018 

On a cold January day in the Maryville College Woods, a group of 12 Maryville College students encountered several emergency situations that required immediate attention – and quick thinking.

One situation involved a person who had been assaulted in the woods. She had head trauma with a significant head injury, a flail segment, a potential spine injury and severe blood loss from an amputated hand.

The students then encountered a photographer who got too close to an elk in the woods. He had been gored in the abdomen and was experiencing heavy bleeding and back pain.

Then, they came across a hiker who was stung by a bee and was having an anaphylactic reaction.

Thankfully, these were all hypothetical scenarios created by instructors who teach OST315: Wilderness Emergency Responder at Maryville College – but the students learned valuable lessons about how to respond to emergency situations.

The course, taught by emergency medical response professionals from Roane State Community College, addresses patient assessment, likely wilderness medical scenarios, CPR, first aid kits, transport equipment, and the outdoor professional’s role in emergency situations and search and rescue management.

“Imagine that someone sustains an injury during a recreational activity,” the course description reads. “How should the injury be treated, and how should the individual be transported to enable the best outcome?”

A requirement for students who are majoring in outdoor studies and tourism at MC, the course results in the opportunity to test for national certification as an Emergency Medical Responder – a significant health care provider certification recognized nationwide.

While people in several fields, such as outdoor guides or park rangers, need these skills for their jobs, the course covers a variety of disciplines and can be useful for anyone participating in outdoor activities, regardless of his or her career goals. Many students who work for Mountain Challenge – an award-winning fitness and outdoor company located on the Maryville College campus since 1987 – also take the course. 

Leadership development

“Leadership development is a key part of the program,” said Kirk Harris, director of continuing healthcare and safety education at Roane State Community College. Harris, who teaches the course at Maryville College, also is a licensed Tennessee paramedic and certified flight paramedic. “Students rotate leadership in leading that scenario, managing the people nearby, managing the patient, delegating and working through the issues. But another lesson is learning to be a good follower, too. When it’s your turn to lead, lead, but when it’s your turn to be a supporter, then be a supporter.”

Harris teaches students that managing the scene is as important as dealing with the care of the patient, adding that those who are first on the scene will often have access to information that no one else will have.

 “It’s important to gather that information and pass it on to the other first responders, park rangers or the ambulance crew, and in turn, they’re going to take that information to a hospital. It’s a pretty important component,” Harris said. “And then there’s managing that patient – being able to assess them, figure out what’s going on with them and manage those illnesses or injuries appropriately.”

Harris teaches a patient assessment system that involves “scene size-up” – once it’s safe for a caregiver or witness to be there, it’s important to make sure the environment is safe for everyone involved before dealing with the patient.

“The next aspect is figuring out what’s going to kill the patient right now – and find it and fix it,” Harris said. “It’s easy to be distracted, and this system helps eliminate distraction.”

“Most of that is prevention – if you can prevent it, then you’ve done a good job,” Harris continued. “For example, if someone says they have an allergy to bees, then that should trigger a conversation.  How severe is that reaction? The next question should be, ‘Do you have an EpiPen with you, and if so, where is it?’ Another example is someone who is diabetic. If we’re out on a cold day, they’re going to have special needs that you need to be attentive to. Should they do your high adventure program? It’s probably OK, as long as you meet their dietary restrictions and keep an eye out on them throughout the day. That’s a big part of what this program is.”

Harris said the 140-acre Maryville College Woods provides an ideal setting for the course, which makes it easy to replicate conditions in the wilderness. Instructors use props, such as prostheses and fake blood, to make medical scenarios seem more realistic. Students are required to bring clothes that can be stained or cut open during the scenarios, depending on the “injuries” that need to be addressed.

‘A competitive advantage’

Completion of the course also gives students a “competitive advantage,” said Bruce Guillaume '76, director of Mountain Challenge.

“What Kirk does enables our students to act more professionally in the context that I want them to be in, such as an outdoor studies major who goes out to do an internship or a Mountain Challenge staff member,” Guillaume said. “I think what Kirk does gives our students a competitive advantage in that context.”

Harris said the course has often helped students with career decisions, citing examples of students who have taken the course to determine whether they wanted to pursue careers as first responders or emergency room physicians. But he also stressed that the course is useful for anyone.

“I’m a huge proponent of this program, simply because it makes you a better citizen, husband or wife, parent …” Harris said. “I made all three of my kids take the program at some point in time, and only one of them is interested in medicine. They now have lifelong skills they can carry with them and know how to be a better neighbor.”

‘A good foundation’    

Jared Johnson ’21, a freshman neuroscience major from Knoxville, hopes to eventually work as an emergency room physician or physician’s assistant. He also is considering work as an emergency medical technician before pursuing medical school, and he thought the course would be useful for all of those careers.

“I wanted to make sure I understand what I’m getting into, and the course provided more hands-on experience to see what this is actually like,” Johnson said. “I got a really good foundation, and it’s a great first step for what I want to do as a career.”

Sawyer Cradit ’20, a sophomore outdoor studies and tourism major from San Marcos, Texas, wants to get involved with search and rescue.

“I learned an outrageous amount during the course,” he said.

Kelsey Scharff ’20, a sophomore child development and learning with teacher licensure major from Maryville, hopes to pursue a career as a professor who researches the outdoors and the cognitive development of children through nature.

“This course is good training for my future career, but it also helps me with my current job with Mountain Challenge,” she said. “Before, if we went out on a hike, the only thing I could do was minor first aid. Now I can do more. You don’t have to work in the outdoors to benefit from this course; everyone is affected by something we’ve learned in this course.”

The course is one of several Maryville College courses that fall under the the College’s Fit.Green.Happy.® initiative, which provides strong connections between Mountain Challenge, academic departments, courses and the College’s location. For students who are interested in taking OST315: Wilderness Emergency Responder, it will be offered again at Maryville College in May 2020.


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2018 semester is 1,146.