Thoroughly modern Katie comes to the rescue

15th February 2008 at 00:00
A teacher at Plockton High has invented a new style of stretcher to help mountain rescue teams carry casualties with greater ease and efficiency.

Jamie Kean's Katie stretcher is designed to be lighter, stronger and more comfortable than existing models and is likely to be exported worldwide. The design was commissioned by the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland and is expected to go on sale in early spring.

Mr Kean was uniquely placed to bring the stretcher project successfully to market. He has been a member of Kintail Mountain Rescue Team for 15 years and already had experience inventing improved mountain-safety products.

His stretcher was named after Catherine Smith, a young Scottish woman who died on her honeymoon after suffering altitude sickness trekking in the Himalayas. Her father set up a trust fund to improve mountain safety in memory of his daughter.

At Plockton High, Mr Kean is head of technology, where his inventiveness has inspired his pupils. Fifth-year student John Strang (see right) is now seeking a manufacturer for his award-winning "Zoomer", a cross between a Zimmer and an electric wheelchair.

The Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland invited Mr Kean, 41, to join their stretcher development committee in 2001, because of his design background.

First they reviewed the strengths and weaknesses of all the stretchers on the market to inform the new design brief. The metal framework stretchers normally used were thought heavy and bulky, with potentially hazardous sharp edges when used with ropes and slings. They come in two pieces and need two carriers, so casualties can't be moved until both people arrive at the scene if the search party has split up.

At the annual conference in Scotland in 2001, mountain rescue team delegates tested out as many stretchers as possible and came up with a wish list. They preferred a stretcher with a plastic shell structure like a sledge, but this wasn't customised for mountain rescue and was prone to tip over. It also lacked valued features like head guards and prominent handles.

Professional designers were hired to work on the project but, when their efforts proved disappointing, the commission went to Mr Kean.

"I said I could produce something much more cheaply in the school workshop that would be useable, whereas the prototypes that the professional designers were talking about producing wouldn't have been working models; they would have been for demonstration only," he says.

"So I was given the task of then going ahead and doing that, and it resulted in the first prototype, which then got tested by mountain rescue teams on the hill. The committee then gave me the go-ahead to produce two further prototypes that were lighter and stronger."

Mr Kean decided to combine the shell-type stretcher's suitability for sledging with the best features of the metal-frame stretcher, which was strong and good for lifting and clipping things onto.

"I've done that and these prototypes have been tested as well. The stretcher is now in production outside Bristol. It's going to be on the market hopefully in March. Mountain Rescue Teams in Scotland, Ireland and England are all interested in purchasing them," he says.

"It sledges really well on snow, ice and grass and heather and so on. You can drag it down a grassy hill without having to lift it up and the casualty is raised off the ground because of the profile I gave the stretcher."

Paul Rosher of Skye Mountain Rescue designed a casualty bag, which fits with the stretcher to provide lighter, safer and more comfortable transport for patients.

The Katie stretcher is designed with modern materials for all terrain use. It has added suspension to improve comfort and a wheel unit which can be attached for going down paths. It also has the potential to be floated across rivers and on the sea.

The Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland owns the intellectual property rights for the stretcher and for the moment Mr Kean won't be giving up the day job. But he thinks Katie has definite export potential, because it has been made to cope with the hugely varied Scottish terrain.

"You've got long moorland walks, you've got crags, you have some extremely fierce hills, you have snow and ice and heather and bogs - you have got everything. Basically, what we tried to do was produce a stretcher that will do well in any situation," he explains.

The stretcher is being manufactured by a company called Snowsled Polar, which makes and exports sledges all over the world for expeditions to the Polar icecap.

Jamie Kean had to put the manufacturing of the Katie stretcher to outside contractors, because the school workshops were not geared up for materials like titanium and carbon fibre.

"Our school workshop is particularly outdated, in fact we were virtually shut down last year because eight of our machines were condemned. The council has just authorised the replacement of five of them.

"We are working on a very reduced service in the department here and it's not physically possible to make accurate, good quality prototypes in my school workshop at the moment.

"Welding titanium is a really specialist job and moulding carbon fibre is also really specialist. Because of the kind of money involved in the material itself, you don't want to be wasting it by trying it yourself and wrecking it," Mr Kean says.

Duncan Ferguson, the headeacher at Plockton High, says: "Given the circumstances in the workshops, I think the success of John Strang in Young Engineers and Jamie Kean's own success is all the more laudable."

Mr Kean now plans returning to an earlier project he put on hold for Katie - work improving "the dead man", a snow anchor which you bury in snow to stop you falling off the hill. His version is called "the live man", which sounds like a definite branding advantage.

He also has a few more inventions up his sleeve, which quite sensibly he is keeping to himself: "That's a secret," he laughs, before heading back to the chalkface.

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