Ski Patrol Inc. is a non-profit advocate for ski patrollers and their skier/rider safety and first aid mission, and publisher of Ski-Patrol.net. Mark O'Connor is a retired ski patroller and Alumni member of the National Ski Patrol, and patrolled at Crotched Mountain in Bennington, New Hampshire for around 10 years. O’Connor is also the CEO of Monadnock Research, a Boston-based consulting industry research and publishing firm.
Hyyge asked Marl specifically about the evolution of ski patrolling, and the experience of ski patrollers today.
Hygge: What does and "average" work day look like for a ski patroller, and how long is a season?
MFO: I’ll take these separately, and in reverse order. This year at the mountain I patrolled at until last season, they opened after the first of the year and were not in full operation until 21 January. Normally they are in partial operation by Christmas week. It was a very warm start to our season here in New England, perhaps the warmest since sophisticated snowmaking systems came on the scene. There are seasons when we are in partial operation during Thanksgiving week in November, and this holds true for most resorts in the Northern and Western US. There are a few resorts in the southwest and southeast that have much shorter seasons, and some years may not be able to open at all. Spring skiing begins in Mid-March throughout the US, and depending on a mountain’s orientation, latitude, peak height and vertical drop from that peak. Some resorts in the northern domains with north-facing terrain may still attract skiers in early June.
A typical day varies by mountain based on many factors, which include the size of the operation and where it is located (latitude, longitude, vertical, number of peaks); whether it is served by full-time paid patrollers, volunteers, or some combination; whether it is an alpine environment, Nordic or backcountry area; whether it is in avalanche terrain, and if so, what the current risk for slides is on different trails and mountain on the resort property and in the back country; the degree to which the terrain is open; the difficulty of the terrain and whether or not it is serviced by lifts; equipment available to the patrol; the local standards of training and practice; proximity to various levels of advanced care; and the age, experience and training of the patroller, to name some of the most important ones.
The typical day starts out with a patrol meeting, where the status of the area’s facilities, equipment and terrain are reviewed. Paid and volunteer resources are then dispatched via helicopter, lift, snowmobiles, cat, or on skis or foot to close and open terrain that needs to be marked. This is true for standing warning signs at dangerous intersections and trails or areas where the status of a trail needs to be changed to open or closed, or marked for hazards. In terrain where avalanche danger exists, specially-trained patrollers are dispatched to mitigate risks by releasing strategically-placed explosive charges via helicopter, howitzer or on skis from the trail head. Members of the patrol then try to ski the area to make sure problem areas are identified and conditions noted. This occurs, to the extent possible, before guests arrive. Resources are assigned specific tasks for the day on various areas of the mountain, providing coverage for any events that may be planned for the day.
Once the trails become populated the focus of the patrols tends to shift toward support of the areas patrolled, including monitoring safety of guests, addressing changes in conditions, and providing first aid to injured guests. Patrols have “top shacks” and “first aid caches” scattered throughout the area to address the area’s typical challenges, and radio communications coverage throughout. As a rule, it is the objective of patrols located in populated areas to be notified of accidents, dispatched to scenes, assess the scene and patient, administer care, stabilize injuries, and transport those injured so they arrive at the appropriate higher level of care that will ultimately address those injuries within an hour of the incident. As you can imagine, accomplishing this objective is an extraordinarily undertaking that requires coordination by a large extended network of first responders and definitive care providers.
At the end of the day, which at some resorts does not end until 3am, patrols attempt to ensure that all resort guests are off the mountain and that it is safe for operations to begin large scale snowmaking and grooming operations. To accomplish this, patrollers try to visually inspect all trails from top to bottom to ensure that no skiers and riders that may be injured have not been missed. They also try to ensure that guests that may want to stay on the mountain for whatever reason are not hiding somewhere until the patrol leaves. A small paid patrol may only be sufficiently staffed to have a single person respond to an accident scene from the top of the mountain with a sled to address an injured guest alone. A large volunteer patrol may dispatch two patrollers to a scene before a sled is even dispatched to assess the guest’s injuries. A small mountain in North Carolina may not even require staff that will provide first aid to even be a competent skier, since most terrain can be accessed on foot or via snowmobile. At the close of the day’s operations a small paid patrol may only have sufficient resources to quickly look at the most heavily traveled trails on resort property with patrol members skiing and others making multiple passes on snowmobile, where a large volunteer patrol may have sufficient resources to assign two members to sweep each mountain trail.
Hygge: What does training consist of, or what certifications are required? How many hours might this amount to (approx.)?
MFO: Initial patrol training always consists of training to the local mountain’s standard of care. It may require assessments of skills through a challenge course for people that have an EMT or some other certification, combined with additional training for winter emergency care. People coming to patrolling that have no first aid training may get it from the National Ski Patrol, which runs courses annually in its Outdoor Emergency Care training standard. There are also different skills required that are specific to the mountain. Skiing to the mountain standard is required, and candidates may or may not possess that level of training initially. Most mountains would not consider candidates that do not come close to meeting those standards. There is also skills training in carrying equipment on skis, and transporting patients down different types of terrain on a toboggan. Other training involves work on avalanche risk mitigation; mountain travel and rescue; and advanced courses in first aid and skiing/riding skills. All patrollers are required to recertify their skills annually across the areas of first aid, skiing/riding and toboggan handling.
Each patroller’s initial training in first aid would require at least 100 hours of classroom, hands-on and independent study time before passing the initial written and practical exams, to begin the second level of on-mountain training. That usually takes a season, with training weekly for about 5 hours. Skiing and riding skills training varies by person and environment to be patrolled, with the assumption that if you didn’t have the base level of skills to start out with that may have taken you decades to develop, you cannot even be considered for the other training. Beyond the base-level skills there are numerous courses and clinics at mountains held throughout the season to improve skills that may span 1 or 2 days (clinics); 2 seasons for Senior Patroller certification; or 3 seasons for Certified Patroller (all-encompassing skills) certification.
Hygge: At a mountain like Copper or Vail (or Sugarloaf, or Loon for that matter), how many patrollers might be employed? What is the average wage?
MFO: Large resorts may employ 100 – 160 paid patrollers, and may also include additional volunteer staff. A good-sized mountain employing mostly volunteers could have 80-200 volunteers that may work between 1 and 4 8-hour shifts per week.
Patrollers that are paid for their work constitute under 15% of all patrollers. Those that are paid fall within the Bureau of Labor Statistics category of Recreational Protective Services Professionals, with hourly compensation ranging from $13.50 to $14.00 per hour in California and Alaska, to $8.58 and $8.52 in Iowa and West Virginia, respectively.
Hygge: Has the profession changed over the last decade in any significant way? How specifically? How has this shaped the profession or the profile of the "average" patroller now.
MFO: I wouldn’t say that the profession has changed significantly in the last 10 years. Change has been an evolutionary process. In the late 1930s when the NSP was founded, there were no resorts, and the organization was launched as a committee of yesterday’s NSAA, the National Skiers Association of America, where many NSP members were also founders of the US Ski Team. That organization ultimately evolved into today’s NSAA, the National Ski Areas Association . The few lifts that existed in the late 1930s and early 1940s were privately funded lift companies. The first consolidation occurred in the 1950s where the lift companies were consolidated to form resorts like Stowe.
Ski Patrollers were instrumental in both the founding of lift companies and the formation of resorts after World War II. Skier safety and providing competent first aid to those in need were the only objectives in the early days. In recent years, however, with the advent of large resort corporations with profit motivations, and given the inherent risks and dangers of skiing, litigation has threatened the survival of some resorts. What has resulted is a patchwork of resort-friendly legislation that limits liability for resorts, architected by collaboration between the National Ski Patrol, resort operators and their insurers. There is even a joint statement of understanding between the NSP and the NSAA, and language in the NSP’s Bylaws and Policies and procedures, that stipulate that members of the NSP must act on the direction of resort operators and can never be sanctioned for anything done at the request of resort management.
The National Ski Patrol System Inc. has evolved since 1938 into an organization that has a seemingly incongruous mission where, on the one hand, it has a Federal Charter like the Red Cross and is exempt from even filing its federal or state tax forms. But at the same time it believes that its primary purpose has evolved past its original purpose to serve skier/rider safety and first aid to represent the interests of 4-season resorts where most patrollers serve, most of which are for-profit organizations that have evolved beyond skiing and riding.
So has this shaped the average patroller now? I think if you asked most patrollers today, even volunteers, they would say that they serve the “evolved” purpose stated in the NSP’s bylaws, Policies and Procedures and the Joint Statement of Understanding between the National Ski Patrol and the National Ski Areas Association. The NSP of 1938, that evolved from the Safety Committee of the National Skier Association of America (the old NSAA), is a very different organization from today’s National Ski Patrol, who rents the penthouse suite in its national headquarters building in Colorado to the new NSAA, the National Ski Areas Association.
Hygge: Your site, among others, have reported on recent efforts by patrollers to unionize. Employees in Vail's new acquisition in Park City voted to unionize, as did patrollers in Telluride, while patrollers in Taos split and thus declined unionization. What do you think underlies these renewed efforts to collectively organize? And is it but a blip, or is this representative on a wider trend?
MFO: Unionization of patrols and patrollers is nothing new, and there has been movement toward and away from unionization over the years, even in recent years. To understand why unions will not likely ever take-hold in the short-run at most resorts, one must first understand the impact of two unique factors unique to the skiing and riding industry. First, the legislation enacted in most states that derive a significant proportion of revenues from winter sports eliminates many of the litigation consequences that would otherwise be present without resort and insurer-friendly legislation. Second, with 85% + of all US patrollers serving as volunteers, for all intents and purposes working for free in what is also likely one of the nation’s most expensive volunteer jobs, heavy-handed tactics to increase salaries and benefits of the minority that chooses the work as a profession will likely fail. Even patrols that have unionized are not demanding wages that would normally be associated with unions. The failed effort recently at Taos was only seeking a $15 minimum hourly wage and some other benefits that most US workers would assume everyone receives.
Hygge: Do these votes, successful or note, reverberate throughout the industry more widely? How (or why not)?
MFO: Yes, certainly. The threat of patrol expenses increasing, even marginally so on an individual basis for paid staff, would have a dramatic impact on any resort’s bottom line. Patrols at resorts represent a significant proportion of total staff. And as a collective bargaining unit, there is an element of control lost by the resort at the level of the individual. There is more freedom for individuals to do what is safe, in their personal interests, and in the interests of skiers and riders that they serve. This may not also be in the best interests of the resort, and its stockholders and insurers. So this combination of factors gets the attention of everyone in the business.
Hygge: A trend we have observed is one of 'guest workers' increasingly employed seasonally by resorts for menial on-mountain tasks, typically. In other industries, this same trend has preceded a more determined effort to replace full-time staff. In Vail, ski instructor efforts to organize were stymied (as we understand it). Have these trends affected patrollers, or do they cause you concern? How/why?
MFO: As you can see in some of my earlier responses, guest workers are not a factor. Patrol work is highly skilled and there is no short supply of highly skilled workers willing to do it for low wages, even for free under certain circumstances. That structure within the industry has evolved slowly over nearly 80 years, and wages and working conditions of patrollers is created by a circumstance that has been deliberately architected by the NSP, resort owners (many of whom were NSP members), insurers (NSP’s founder, Minnie Dole, was an insurance broker) and the state legislators in states that derive significant revenues from winter sports. That structure will not quickly change or be affected by outside influences of any kind, regardless of the benefit to the skiing and riding public, or to society as a whole.
Hygge: Affordable housing has been an increasing challenge for even the full-time employed in ski area towns throughout the West (Vice just published something on Jackson, WY, for instance, and the Denver Post has reported on similar issues in Summit County, CO). How does this affect patrollers? Or have you heard from patrollers who struggle with this issue? What are its implications for communities, from your perspective.
MFO: Affordable housing is a significant challenge for patrollers that have chosen the work as a profession. It is among the lowest paying jobs for the reasons noted. The term “ski bum” still applies to many that choose this line of work, and it is not uncommon for some to follow the snow to the southern hemisphere so they can continue to work in the off season. Most find other work and the majority eventually find more lucrative employment as they get older and remain volunteers to ski for free on weekends at resorts near where they live and work. Lodging is one of the challenges that patrollers have attempted to address, and Vail has promised to add staff housing at below market rates at Park City in the years ahead.
Hygge: Does ski area ownership consolidation impact this topic in any way?
MFO: The larger resorts tend to have the largest proportions of full time paid staff in the patrol function. The largest mountains in various regions have the most demand for their resources by paying guests, and they can afford to pay the best wages, offer the best benefits and attract the most competent paid resources. Volunteer patrols serve primarily the majority of the rest of the resorts, allowing them to stay in business without needing to worry about one of the most expensive cost categories that any resort has. Insurers consider NSP-trained volunteer patrols to meet the same standard required of any other patrol, so members of the NSP effectively subsidize the existence of many mountains around the US that would otherwise not be able to open without them.
Hygge: Can you comment on any specific labor organization efforts, specifically (like in Vail, Taos, Telluride or Park City)? How were they organized? What were chief complaints/demands? What does opposition stem from? What did owners or operators say, do in light of a vote?
MFO: I think you should contact a representative of the labor organization groups for this info. Mine is largely hearsay. Feel free to quote anything on Ski-Patrol.net with attribution. There are a few specifics in three articles on the subject of patroller unions and wages on the site.
Hygge: What then does unionization of patrollers look like? Of what does it consist and what does it mean for the "average" patroller?
MFO: Unionization for patrollers is all about creating safer working conditions in one of the most dangerous professions; earning a living wage that allows patrollers to consider the work an actual profession, rather than a short-term avocation; and providing benefits to patrollers that allow them to feel secure that if they are become sick or injured in their work, they will receive the proper care, rehabilitation and remuneration to help them recover. But keep in mind, the average patroller is a volunteer patroller, and given the National Labor Relations Act’s language, unions will never represent their interests.
Hygge: From your perspective, what is the future of patrolling? (What is needed, or, what are bright spots, for instance? What are impediments to achieving what is needed?)
Can you point to models that make for more effective, safe ski areas, and more sustainable communities (patrollers as well compensated, employed members of a community)?
MFO: I have some thoughts on these two questions. But given all that I note above, there are no simple answers. Dramatic change is afoot for patrolling and for patrollers – especially for the NSP organization. It simply cannot survive as a non-profit serving largely for-profit purposes. So the most likely outcome in the short-run will be that the NSP will transform into a for-profit entity serving 4-season resorts.
That said, I don’t believe this would be in the best interests of the skiing and riding public, or for ensuring that patrollers become the well compensated, employed members of the communities they serve.