Cottage Q&A: emergency preparedness for remote cottages

Emergency Medical Helicopter in flight Photo by Diane Garcia/Shutterstock

What is the policy for health-related emergencies at a remote or water-access cottage? Are helicopters available? Or boats? Or would there be an emergency vehicle waiting at a nearby access point?—Better Safe Than Sorry

Any of those options, or even a combination of all three, is possible, depending on the nature of the emergency and your location. It’s best to contact your municipality, ask these questions, and then formulate a plan to set in motion if you ever do need to call 911, says Terry Rees, the executive director of the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations (FOCA). “Doing this research in advance is an important step to understand how to access emergency services and the level of service you might expect.”

Water access or not, the remoteness of cabins complicates medical emergencies. In Alberta, for example, mountainous terrain is the problem, says Dale Weiss, an executive director of EMS for Alberta Health Services for the northern sector. In a typical “off-road rescue,” when the person who needs help calls 911, the EMS dispatch or rescue coordination centre connects with a helicopter medical transport service or a search-and-rescue team, which retrieves and then delivers the patient to a waiting ambulance or flight crew (such as the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society), which then takes the patient to a hospital. “The key to how well all this happens is a person’s ability to make an initial phone call,” says Weiss. Cottage locales—with their bluffs and trees and lack of cell towers—can make communication sketchy. If you don’t have a land line, and your cell service isn’t reliable, you need another option, such as a satellite phone.

Even if it’s easy to call for help, “people need to understand that, in an emergency, there’s likely to be a slower response,” says Don Marentette, the director of first aid programs with the Canadian Red Cross and a former advanced-care paramedic who at times has had to travel “down cliffs and across tundra” to get to injured folks. “Reaching people is time consuming.”

Cover your bases. Have an up-to-date, robust first aid kit (Marentette highly recommends including low-dose Aspirin, for heart attacks) and emergency procedure instructions on hand. “As an islander myself,” says FOCA’s Rees, “I have not only the specific cottage location written down by the phone, but also the address of the nearest mainland dock that is accessible by land ambulance.” Knowing your GPS coordinates and having signalling devices that can be seen from an approaching helicopter (flags or flares, for example) are also smart moves.

Oh, and use common sense. The cottage is awesome; we love the cottage. But it may not be the best place to spend your vacation if you’re terribly frail. Or, say, nine-and-a-half months pregnant.

This article was originally published in the May 2016 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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