The PGHM mountain rescue unit on the island of Reunion, like the other PGHM mountain rescue units, is tasked with providing rescue services to the public, searching for missing persons (as requested by law enforcement or the administration), and protecting the natural environment. Although they are located 10,000 km from mainland France, PGHM Reunion still works closely with Petzl to monitor and provide feedback on PPE (personal protective equipment) performance. In spite of the Indian Ocean's exotic element, certain rescues on the island of Reunion are among the most hazardous. The rescuers, mechanics, and pilots should know since they have all also worked in the French Alps.
PGHM means "intense": Reunion's unique environment
From a safety-management point of view, the island of Reunion (224 km in circumference) is topographically built like a circus tent, with a volcano and several ravines that descend its flanks and that have indicative names like "mishap ravine." To complicate the professional lives of PGHM rescuers even further, one million people busily move around this beautiful island on a daily basis. As recognition for its natural beauty, Reunion National Park is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The triopical climate
Heat, humidity, heavy rains and intense cyclones, ever-changing and unpredictable weather conditions between the windward and leeward side of the island, and the venturi effect in the narrow valleys make piloting the rescue helicopters a real challenge (helicopters are referred to as "machines" in the French military vernacular).
A considerable temperature gradient
From 0°C to 24°C in winter between the island’s 3070.50m high point (Piton des Neiges) and sea level.
Reunion’s legendary canyons: Takamaka, Trou de Fer, Fleur Jaune, Bras rouge, Trou Blanc, Sainte Suzanne.
Although an extraordinary playground for the outdoor sport of canyoning, these canyons are cirques where several ravines converge into the same stream (Bras), where natural "dams" (buildup of mud, trees, …) can form during thunderstorms in the high country and then breach all of a sudden even if there is a cloudless blue sky at lower elevations.
Hikes in the Cilaos and Mafate cirques
The only way to reach the Mafate cirque is on foot or by helicopter. There are no roads. The exposed trails are a series of switchbacks and staircases built up the steep slopes and the sheer mountainsides where the exposure is hidden by thick vegetation. Even a light rain transforms the already damp soil into rather muddy terrain where the torrential runoff down each ravine turns any outing into a more spicy adventure.
Last but not least on this ecologically extraordinary island are the primary tropical forests where the succulent plants are enormous, where the thick vegetation lets little sunlight through, and where visibility is only a meter or two. In addition, nightfall comes quickly and early. Thick clouds often cling to the upper slopes, requiring helicopter pilots to navigate with zero visibility.
The volcano: Piton de la Fournaise, 2632m
A wonderful change of scenery, this dormant volcano is always an eruption waiting to happen and can wake up at any moment. The last eruptions occurred in 2007 and 2010. The prefecture sounding the alarm means that an eruption will likely occur within a very short period of time. The PGHM has 30 minutes to evacuate everyone located around or in the Pas de Bellecombe.
A day in the life of PGHM Reunion's rescuers
Two teams, a first-response and backup team show up for their 24-hour shift, from 8 in the morning until 8 the next day, at the Gillot Air Base 181 in Saint Denis. Everything is in order: the two “Machines” in their respective hangars, the 4X4 vehicles, the bags, uniforms; the team and personal gear is stowed, cleaned, inspected, approved, labeled… military discipline is required. Everything is ready, the aerial resources for the Gendarmerie’s Air Division, and the SAMU’s (France’s medical emergency service) mountain-qualified doctors. Most rescues require a “machine,” but at night or during bad weather, search and rescue operations are conducted by vehicle and then on foot in two-person teams. If children are involved, the number of rescuers deployed increases. This exciting profession requires rescuers to be readily available and always in great shape since they often carry heavy gear (tents, rescue litter, ropes, drill …). A rescue on foot can last between 18 hours and multiple days on the ground.
Communication is an essential component of the profession
Young rescuers in training know this all too will since it is their first assignment when with the group. Telephone calls from the victims (or "alerts") are extremely important. The conversation with the victim or a witness will allow rescuers to better understand the situation, to zero in on the exact location, to analyze the seriousness of the injuries, and to identify on the map all of the topographic challenges the pilot and the rescuers will face once on the ground.
At this point, a three-person discussion takes place, "we analyze the situation (weather, wind, if aerial support is necessary), and we listen carefully to both the doctor and the pilot." When the people involved (PGHM, SAG, SAMU) decide to commit, at that very moment what was a bunch of individuals comes together to form a single cohesive unit. "We are one. We are ready for takeoff."
To succeed in this profession one must understand things quickly and get right to the point. "We trust everyone we work with. The team works extremely well together, and yet there is a certain amount of individual independence since everyone has their specific role to play. We are capable of engaging an operation for a long period of time. You need to learn how to manage the adrenaline rush, to remain attentive even when doing routine maneuvers, to follow protocol. We alternate between moments of extreme concentration and periods where we can relax, but during a flight, everyone respects each other: the pilot, the people in the control tower."
This ability to listen comes after years of studying and practicing very specific techniques as well as high-quality management training. "This gives us a mutually beneficial knowledge base. We have different professions and expertise working together in the same field of operations, but we all signed up to be recruited into the group." The pilot applied to join the SAG as a mountain pilot and thus trains accordingly, PGHM rescuers take mountain-specific training clinics, and the SAMU doctors also go through mountain-specific training. Rescuers keep a close eye on and take care of the doctor during complicated rescues. They even organize technical training clinics for the doctors to augment their rescue skills.
To save lives, the aircraft team (pilot and mechanic) and the ground team of rescuers have to get along well. Their primary mission is to bring the doctor and the injured to the hospital as quickly as possible. Sometimes it takes time to medically stabilize the victim in the field, but they always see things through. You need to have a thorough understanding of the techniques, the geography and the topography of the mountains, as well as how others will potentially react in a rescue situation.
As requested by rescuers on the ground, the pilot will bring the machine as close to the rescue site as possible. The situation is often a complicated one: the injured may be too close to the mountainside or cliff, or the pilot has to try to avoid destabilizing a victim who is still attached to their paragliding wing. For a given situation, rescuers on the ground must explain to the team in the air exactly what is going on, and key words include: steep canyon, bad weather, mortal danger, imminent danger, seriously hurt child, unique situation.
On the ground, the team must first provide a clear description of the situation to the pilot and mechanic. A single version of the circumstances must be heard and understood by everyone. Nothing should be left to interpretation. In order to be extremely precise, sometimes attitude and tone are important.
Chief David Lohier talks about a dangerous rescue
Bras-Rouge Canyon: sixteen people trapped (in Cilaos at 1000m elevation) - 2012
"Having already been here for a year, I had gone out on a variety of different rescue missions: rescues at sea on a commercial ship where hoisting can be difficult when the swells are big, in canyons, for suicides, on volcanoes, following a cyclone… What was unique about the Bras-Rouge rescue was the unspoken commitment between the helicopter crew (pilot and mechanic) and us rescuers, and then with the people in distress.
Early that morning, as with every time I start my shift, I read my orders for the day and any important information from the day before. We then started the day by learning about new hoisting methods, followed by practicing these new methods. There was a relaxed atmosphere in the helicopter when we were contacted by radio to conduct a canyon rescue. The first information provided turned everyone in the machine white. We mentally prepared as best we could and then gathered the rest of the information we needed to conduct the rescue.
We took off with the new EC145*. Yannick Audurier joined me as the second rescuer. Once in the area we encountered horrible weather conditions, heavy rains combined with low cloud cover. When we arrived at the site, the Bras-Rouge River was almost overflowing, and the water was dark and muddy. At that moment we were very worried about the sixteen people who were trapped. The approach was tricky, and we had to be extremely careful. Navigating and precise piloting took on all their meaning here. Water flow and the number of people in distress made the rescue extremely problematic."
The unwavering hands of both pilot and mechanic
"We located the group 150 meters above the canyon exit, gathered against a cliff and isolated on a small rocky ledge. We and the flight crew decided that both of us would be lowered down directly to the group in order to evacuate everyone as quick as possible. Yannick and I knew that there was not a second to lose. Just before being lowered we and the flight crew agreed exactly on how to conduct the evacuation. Hoist two by two and then drop them off on the road 200 meters lower down (noria*). Speed and efficiency - the first two people, already in a total panic, were extracted. Fortunately for us no one was hurt. The group had stopped in a relatively safe place just before the water quickly rose to a dangerous level.
We used topographic indicators to check the water level, and it was continuing to rise. We asked the pilot to move as quickly as possible. A certain tension was clearly building up at the bottom of the river, only precise movements and key words were used for the hoist. The water level wasn't dropping, but it wasn't rising anymore either. We had already evacuated eight people. Our fears stabilized, but our room to maneuver had indeed decreased. We finished by hoisting the guide and his last client. In less than twenty minutes, everyone was dropped off at the bridge on the road that leads to CILAOS. Then it was our turn to be hoisted back up into the machine.
When we flew back over the drop-off zone everyone on the ground waved to us in thanks and to say goodbye. The pilot replied with a quick sound of the siren. Quite a few curious bystanders, who had listened to the rescue in real time on the radio waves, were also standing on the road in order to 'take part' the rescue."
End of the mission
"We were careful during the flight back to the air base since the cloud ceiling had dropped and continued to cling to the mountainside. We said little to each other during the return flight. Everyone was caught up in their own thoughts. Once we were standing on terra firma, we each started to share our feelings about the rescue. It’s during this type of rescue that we apply all of our technical knowledge and our commitment in order to save people caught in a difficult situation, which sometimes unfortunately ends in tragedy. Upon our arrival we discovered that news about our rescue had traveled quickly. Several journalists spoke with our superiors. On our end, we preferred to keep our distance in order to let the mental stress of the mission subside. That very evening both the television news and our commanding officers congratulated us on our success. The guide and his group contacted us the next day to thank us and to tell us about how scared they were during the extraction."
*Norias: a quick rotation to drop off people or equipment in a safe zone close to the rescue site (road, clearing,…). The EC145 can hold 6 or 7 people aboard under normal circumstances, but you have to take the location, the number of people to rescue, weight, power available depending on the altitude, fuel autonomy, and the severity of the situation into consideration. So we often have to conduct "norias."
Partnership between Petzl and the PGHM
"Petzl participates in the development of verticality and lighting products, in training sessions and instruction, and in providing essential information on periodic and in-depth PPE verification (personal protective equipment).
Petzl has always worked in a deliberate manner to create products dedicated to rescues. The personnel within the PGHM’s specialized units are interested in a complete line of products that adapt well to different situations, products that are reliable, robust, and durable. They are interested in specific training for products and get involved in product development by sharing their own experience. Petzl is proud to work in partnership with the PGHM. This partnership seeks to go far beyond the simple manufacturer-user relationship, to become a relationship that is a true source of creativity in this great human adventure."
Bruno Lambert, Manager for the professional market in France
Petzl products for technical rescues
Learn more about the PGHM
The primary mission of the PGHM - Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne (Gendarmerie High-Mountain Rescue Group) is governed by the departmental rescue plan drafted by the local prefect. The PGHM is the Mountain Technical Advisor (CTM) for the Reunion prefect, and with this title it is the sole entity on the island responsible for rescues and searching for missing persons, all within the framework of a law enforcement or administrative request and to protect the natural environment.
- The prefecture’s plan lays out the respective responsibilities for the SAG (Gendarmerie Air Division) commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Pascal Bernardini, the PGHM (Gendarmerie High-Mountain Rescue Group) commanded by Lieutenant GuyLe Neve, and the SAMU (mountain-qualified emergency doctors).
- The PGHM’s jurisdiction covers the entire island of Reunion, including the coast. The group may also lead missions in the Southern Indian Ocean, to the Kerguelen Islands for example.
- Those missions to assist people who are lost or in danger during some form of sporting activity are linked to the inherent risks of the tropical mountain environment: mud slides, flash floods, forest fires, volcanoes, during and after a cyclone, high ocean swells along the coast. These interventions are located in isolated areas where the terrain makes access difficult and requires applying specific techniques.
- The activities concerned are primarily hiking and canyoning, but also health related evacuations such as for certain difficult childbirths. Since 2011, the PGHM in Reunion has two helicopters to work with: one EC145, and one Ecureuil BA.
- 500 rescues are conducted during an average year. An active partnership has been established with the ONF (National Forestry Office), Natural Parks, the Ministry of youth and sports, the volcano observatory, and EDF (France’s electric company).
- The Reunion PGHM is made up of 15 men including 4 young gendarmes in training. Tenured members of the team hold state certification for canyoning, and certain are state-certified (and IFMGA) high-mountain guides. They are all trained police officers, they are all rescuers, they have all received mountain specific training by the Gendarmerie, and have earned certification to lead operations for rescue missions.
- The PGHM website (in French)