The IHC Life Flight air rescue team is now the first civilian program in the United States certified to use hoist rescues to pull injured and stranded people out of rugged terrain.

Intermountain Health Care demonstrated its hoist-equipped Agusta 1093K helicopter with a mock rescue by Little Mountain Monument near Emigration Canyon Tuesday morning.

Hoist rescue allows medical teams to air lift patients who are injured in areas where it's not safe to land. And it speeds up rescues when time is particularly critical and the patient might not survive waiting for climbers to reach him, according to Jerry Morrison, director of Life Flight.

It's all about speed and safety for both the patient and the crew, said Dr. Colin Grissom, a Life Flight physician. "This is a tool we can use to save the life of an injured person or preserve the safety" of the rescue crew.

IHC first investigated using a hoist-rescue system back in 1993 and, in fact, selected the Agusta that year because the Swiss Air Rescue program helped design the helicopter, which was made with high altitudes and hot temperatures in mind. A hoist could be — and was — retrofitted later.

For the past 18 months, Life Flight crews have been training with the hoist.

The hoist itself is the $100,000 "ugly wart" on the right side of the helicopter over the fire-engine red door, according to Bill Butts, Life Flight operations director and a pilot with 20-plus years experience. The flight nurse operates the hoist from inside the helicopter. A paramedic is lowered down to the patient on a 164-foot stainless steel, spin-resistant cable to perform triage and wrap the patient in a mummy-bag type apparatus, then the two are lifted into the air and flown to the closest spot where they can safely land. There, the nurse joins the paramedic to get the patient stabilized to be loaded into the helicopter and flown to the hospital.

The system operates in tandem with search and rescue teams, according to Sgt. Lane Larkin, Salt Lake County Search and Rescue. "It's our decision if it's safer for them or us," he said. "But time is a big element in saving people's lives and at times this is the only way to do it fast and safely."

"Until now, search and rescue personnel would often have to accomplish very technical and difficult ground maneuvers in order to reach an injured or stranded person in an area where we couldn't land the helicopter," Butts said. "That put the rescue team and the patient at significant risk and potentially delayed vital care the patient may urgently need."

All Life Flight helicopter crews — 10 nurses, 10 paramedics and eight pilots besides Butts — have been trained in hoist rescue. The crews were certified in November but have not yet had to employ the technique. That will likely change, Butts said, "now that the weather is nice and people are recreating."

IHC Life Flight, headquartered at LDS Hospital and based there and at Primary Children's Medical Center and Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo, began rescues 23 years ago. Last year they transported nearly 3,000 injured or ill patients and helped with dozens of searches and rescues.