Search and Rescue program benefits from FOTS support

February 26, 2024

ranger on electric bike in GSMNP

by Julie Dodd

Every year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) conducts between 100 to 150 search and rescue missions.

The park has more than 500,000 acres and more than 12 million annual visitors, which means that the park’s Search and Rescue staff deals with a wide range of emergency situations.

Night rescue at GSMNP
A rescue in the park can require a a team of 10, with an average rescue time of six hours. FOTS funds equipment and gear used by the Search and Rescue teams. NPS photo

The Search and Rescue (SAR) team assists visitors who have had heart attacks, rescues injured backcountry hikers who are miles from a trailhead, and helps drivers whose cars have skidded off the road and gone into a waterway or ravine.

GSMNP Emergency Manager Liz Hall, who supervises the Search and Rescue Program, speaks with enthusiasm about advances in the program during the four years she has been with the park.

“We are at an entirely different place from where the program was when I started,” Hall said.

When Hall became GSMNP’s first Emergency Manager in 2020, she had a staff of two seasonal employees, who were funded by Friends of the Smokies.

Now Hall has a Search and Rescue (SAR) staff of seven paid for with funds from Park-It-Forward, the parking fee program that was implemented in March 2023.

FOTS continues to fund seasonal rangers and also funds a range of equipment, gear and training for the Search and Rescue team.

“’Friends’ helps us out with so many things that we couldn’t accomplish on our own,” Hall said.

Rangers use AED trainer during EMT training
AED trainers were used during EMT refresher training. FOTS purchased AED trainers and 70 AEDs, located throughout the park. NPS photo

Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs)

Hall described the major improvement in dealing with heart attack victims in the park with the new automated external defibrillators (AEDs) paid for by FOTS.

An AED, a medical device that is used when someone is experiencing sudden cardiac arrest, analyzes the heartbeat and can give an electrical shock, or defibrillation, to help the heart re-establish a rhythm.

“’Friends’ stepped up and purchased $100,000 of AEDs. Previously, we had seven different kinds of AEDs in the park. Now we have 70 new AEDs that are the same model throughout the park,” Hall said.

The number and location of AEDs, some of which are in special weatherproof boxes, reduce the time it takes to get the AED onto a heart attack victim. FOTS also purchased new AED trainers, non-shocking replicas of the AED, that are used in training the emergency staff. Hall said now the staff can train on the same AED model that they will be using in the park.

Hall said several projects on the Park’s Needs List for 2024, which FOTS funds, will improve visitor safety and will improve the safety and professionalism of the SAR team.


The park launched the first-in-the-country search and rescue electric bike (e-bike) program in 2023 to reduce the emergency response time in wilderness areas, and FOTS paid for the e-bikes. The photo at the top of the blog is one of the rescue e-bikes and bike trailer.

Hall described a rescue in Deep Creek last fall when two rangers used e-bikes to cover 23 miles of trails to reach the injured backcountry hiker, greatly reducing the time required to reach the hiker and begin emergency medical aid. This year, FOTS will fund two more e-bike set-ups, including a backcountry bike trailer. FOTS also has paid for a ranger to attend a special emergency cyclist training program. That fully certified-to-teach instructor will teach his first course in April for GSMNP rangers.

NPS Park Medic Training

FOTS is funding the cost of members of the SAR team to attend NPS Park Medic Training at the University of California/San Francisco, the only advanced life support training of its kind in the country. Hall, who attended the training in 2013, said this is a “very unique course,” providing advanced EMT training. The participating rangers receive medical training, taught by physicians, and then participate fully in the Fresno Community Hospital emergency room, being integrated into medical teams.

Search and Rescue safety equipment

Hall said that FOTS funding for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) enables her to professionalize and upgrade the gear for the emergency crew members.

Swiftwater Team personnel have new dry suits, with water shoes, gloves, helmets and flotation devices. The SAR team’s gear now includes high-performance jackets, new backpacks and micro-spikes, which are used for muddy conditions as well as ice. Hall said the average time of rescue from the time they receive the alert until the victim is carried to the ambulance is six hours. Having high quality gear that wicks and dries well keeps crew members warmer in the multi-hour process of a rescue.

Hall said she has ordered gear that fits each ranger.

“When I arrived, all equipment was one size fits all,” Hall said.

She said that being 5’2” herself made her very aware of why properly fitting clothing and equipment was important. “Imagine what it’s like trying to do things wearing gloves that are too large.”

Search and Rescue team is briefed
Search and Rescue team is briefed before the start of a rescue. NPS photo

State-of-the-art winch kit

Last year, FOTS funded the purchase of a state-of-the-art winch kit, a new piece of safety equipment for the park. Hall said the winch makes it much easier to set up a rope rescue and requires fewer people to operate. Friends funded also a three-day technical rope rescue course facilitated by an outside company in the use of the winch.

The winch was used last fall in rescuing a hiker who fell off a road and was next to the river.

“Other parks are reaching out to us to see how we’re doing it,” Hall said of the expanded SAR program. “I tell them we have an incredible ‘Friends’ group helping fund these programs.”

You can make a donation to support the Search and Rescue Program or one of the other GSMNP programs that Friends of the Smokies funds. Check the 2024 Park Needs List.