What Wilderness EMT school in Montana Taught Me

Words and photos by Meghann Gunther, MTI Contributor

I graduated from a Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician class through Aerie Backcountry Medicine in Montana. This intensive, 3-month course was challenging and rewarding. 

Instructors Matter

Our class had two incredible instructors who invested in us. The lead instructor spent a significant amount of time in the military and as a Paramedic and instructor. As a brand new student in EMS, his experience and knowledge were invaluable to me. Additionally, his assistant instructor brought in a solid foundation as an EMS provider, Ski Patrol, overseas student, and instructor. While the basics of EMT school are almost the same wherever you go, in my experience it’s the instructors who have the power to influence what kind of provider you can be when you graduate.

At first I struggled with the teaching style that our lead instructor brought into class. It seemed overly stern and it was intimidating! It felt like I got barked at when I made mistakes. During hands on skills, I was put on the spot to explain why I was doing something. It was a rough start for me. A week or so into school, I realized it was me who had the wrong attitude about it. As I got to know the instructors a little better, I saw how much they cared about us and our training. 

It turned out that the teaching style was exactly what I needed. I was being challenged to be the very best student and EMT in training possible. Our instructors cared about keeping the high standard of training held by Aerie Backcountry Medicine and for that, I am very grateful. Our whole class graduated and passed our National Registry test on the first go around. A lot of that is owed to the dedication and teaching of our incredible instructors. 

Most important, the instructors ensured we got our BLS (Basic Life Support) skills dialed in. We trained and studied to become very proficient in those skills. We built a solid foundation. This was very important to them because basics save lives, and it became very important to me as well. There are many incredible tools in the EMS world to help support providers’ care for people, but in rural settings, like the wilderness, I learned that those basic life saving skills may be the only thing you can do and to do them well is my duty as a provider.

Training Environments Matter

Although we had a lot of classroom time, we also ran through hands-on training scenarios around the college building we were in and outside on the surrounding grounds. Our scenarios were urban-based and sometimes outside “actors”, (usually former students) would come in and be our patients. It was helpful to me to have patients who were complete strangers, as it was realistic to what I would face in the real world. I had started to have a sense of comfort when I was doing my hands-on skills on a fellow student and that was a detriment to me in training. 

On the weekends, we trained in wilderness areas in the Bitterroot corridor of Montana. Sun, rain or snow we trained. Our instructors set up a variety of scenarios from animal attack victims to lost and wounded hikers to group casualties and long term patient care. We dealt with bear and moose and hunter scenarios gone wrong. Warming fires were built and we macgyvered things we needed, learning how much the environment can mess up your plans. I “ordered” resources for patients and they got “canceled” due to weather. The training was dynamic and challenging and forced our class to work as a team and think for ourselves. I found great value in training outside the classroom because it forced me to take into account the environment for myself, our team and our patients, which cannot be underestimated in Montana during the winter. When all I had was my medical bag, my partner, and a patient in the woods who was more than an hour from advanced life support, it challenged me to put skills and knowledge together more efficiently.