Mountain rescue in France is for the most part a public service conducted by government agencies. These include the police mountain units of the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), the gendarme mountain and high mountain groups (PGM and PGHM) and the mountain group of the fire and rescue service (GMSP). They are accompanied by emergency doctors who have been trained in mountain rescue techniques.
There are 22 regions in France where mountain rescue services operate. In some areas two or three rescue services take turns to provide cover on a weekly basis. In other areas the territory has been divided into different zones which are covered by separate services. Some of these zones are covered by mixed service teams. Rescues carried out by these services are financed by the government and free to members of the public.
Rescues in ski resorts, however, are mostly carried out by the ski patrol service which is under the authority of the town hall. These rescues must be paid for by the user, with prices being set by the local council.
France’s mountain rescue teams have become increasingly professionalised over the past 60 years.
Towards the end of the 19th century, voluntary rescue teams were formed in many areas. These were comprised of local mountaineers and mountain guides. However, the difficulty of organising some rescue missions, most notably the failed operation to rescue Jean Vincendon and François Henry on Mont Blanc during the winter of 1956-57, led to the professionalisation of mountain rescue.
In 1958, the minister for home affairs delegated the responsibility for mountain rescue to regional governors, who used existing structures to provide permanent cover. Haute Savoie is the only French department where voluntary teams still play a major role. They support professional teams during terrestrial rescue operations and avalanche searches. Some, such as La Chamoniarde, also manage the emergency radio networks and are involved in accident prevention.
Gendarmes and police rescuers follow similar training courses which last about 40 weeks. The fire and rescue service course is modular and adapted to local requirements.
Every rescue worker follows a general training programme which qualifies them to participate in all types of mountain rescue operation, whether that be a helicopter rescue or a canyon descent.
Helicopters are provided by the air branch of the Gendarmerie Nationale or the Sécurité Civile. In some cases, private helicopters may be called upon to provide additional cover.
A standard rescue team is composed of a pilot, a winch operator, two rescue workers and an emergency doctor.
75% of rescue operations require the provision of medical treatment. In France, this is carried out by doctors who take turns to provide permanent cover. As well as being fully-qualified emergency doctors, they must follow a mountain rescue course which lasts a minimum of four weeks. Once qualified, they have to participate in continued professional development courses.
In 2017, 1513 rescues were carried out in the Haute-Savoie department of France.
Hiking is the activity that generates the most rescues, followed by mountain-biking and alpine climbing (10% each). Rescues for para/hang gliding and ski-touring incidents are only half as frequent. Public service rescues in ski resorts, requested either by ski patrols or members of the public, amount to approximately 20% of the annual total.
In 2017, 205 people died before, during or after a rescue operation. This figure has remained stable for a long time, despite an increase in the number of participants in mountain sports. This is in large part due to the effectiveness of the mountain rescue services, and the work that is being done in accident prevention.