Interview: Matthew Napiltonia, Senior Operations Manager for Global Rescue

Matthew Napiltonia global rescue
Rescue and recovery

AirMed&Rescue spoke to Matthew Napiltonia about his experiences evacuating injured members from some of the world’s most remote environments

Could you explain a bit about what your role involves on a day to day basis?

I lead active medical evacuation and security operations and I manage Global Rescue’s US-based Medical Operations Team. Essentially, this means that when one of our members is in trouble anywhere in the world and needs medical or security assistance, advice, or evacuation, I’m responsible for managing the member’s evacuation and ensuring that they are returned safely to their home. That sometimes involves evacuation by rotary or fixed-wing aircraft, but can involve any other form of transport from four-wheel drive vehicle, to pack animal, to individual people picking the member up and carrying them.

How did you come to be involved in the global emergency assistance sector?

It’s a long story involving many different roles, all of which contributed to my skillset now. I was a US Navy SEAL. Later, I was a Platoon Leader and Medical Services Officer in the 101st Airborne Division, where I performed medical evacuations in Afghanistan. I have also been in the corporate and diplomatic security sector for many years, including as a contractor for the US Department of State in Afghanistan. I served as China National Petroleum Corporation International’s Security Director in Afghanistan, and before joining Global Rescue, I served as the Chief Operations Officer for both Apache Defense and O’Connor Energy, focusing on risk mitigation.

My experiences as an operations leader in various public and private sector organisations helped feed my interest in solving complicated medical transport and security problems while helping people when they are in need.

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How does your military experience assist you in your current role?

My time as a Navy SEAL and Army Medical Services Officer gave me highly relevant experience in areas like breaking complicated logistics problems into their component parts, identifying critical steps in the process where reinforcement or redundancy is necessary, the importance of clear, direct, unambiguous communication, and identifying the best resources for the task. I performed many evacuations off the battlefield in the most austere conditions with the worst possible injuries. Further, our motto in the SEALs is ‘Never leave a man behind’. This ethos built the foundation that drives me every day at Global Rescue. Also, quite a few of my colleagues and our rescue partners are ex-military, which gives us a common understanding and vocabulary to solve problems collaboratively.

There have been concerns raised about unnecessary helicopter evacuations from the Everest region in Nepal; what experience do you have of this issue?

Unfortunately, trekkers are sometimes worth more to operators when they do not successfully summit than when they do. These unethical operators often try to extract money from the individual trekker and ultimately, from the trekker’s insurance carrier. But since Global Rescue is not an insurance company, we take direct responsibility for rescuing our members when they need evacuation. That means the member doesn’t file any claims and doesn’t bear any cost other than the membership fee they’ve already paid. They also don’t have to figure out which rescuer is honest and which isn’t.

I lead Global Rescue’s Asset Development Team, where we have dedicated a tremendous amount of manpower and resources vetting the world’s most reliable rescue providers, including in Nepal. Part of my job is doing thorough vetting and background checking of companies before they become our partners. That way, when we need to rescue a member, we know we’ve got ethical, competent and safe providers at every step of the chain.

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Sticking with Everest, have you noticed an increase in evacuations this season as a result of climbers getting stuck in so-called ‘traffic jams’? Has there been an increase in repatriations of mortal remains too?

Our long-term average is about 100 operations and evacuations of our members conducted in the Himalayas every year. That number was about the same this climbing season. However, this season, we have seen a spike in percentage of evacuations due to frostbite and high-altitude sickness, which we attribute to climbers spending extended time in the cold, at altitude, sometimes in traffic jams like the ones splashed across social media. We’ve also unfortunately conducted 33-per-cent more mortal remains transports than last year to repatriate the bodies of our members from Nepal when they succumb to more than humans are built to withstand.

Have you noticed trends in travel to more extreme environments by less experienced climbers occurring in other parts of the world? Do you think that a lack of proper preparation has resulted in more evacuations from hostile locations?

Yes, we have seen a new wave of unprepared trekkers. While many trekking guide services are robustly supplied and carry long track records of responsible practices, a disturbing number of less-than-scrupulous operators are engaged in a race to the bottom of cut-rate service with bare-bones support and comparatively low prices to lure Western clients in to chase their bucket list dreams, despite inadequate levels of fitness and preparation. Yesterday’s couch-to-5k challenge seems to be today’s couch-to-Everest. The companies’ mad scramble to maximise profits during the brief Himalayan summiting window has led many climbers to bite off far more than they can chew. Despite crack-down efforts, rampant corruption has limited transparency for clients to fully understand their guide service’s practices, track record, and limitations before exposing themselves to the inherent risks that come with travel above 7,000 m (23,000 feet) where helicopters cannot fly.

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You don’t own your own aircraft, but make use of local providers – how do you ensure their operations are adequately safe?

Ultimately, there are no shortcuts to the hard face-to-face work our teams do to meet, review, screen, and validate our network of partners. We have hundreds of partners and we take their vetting very seriously. We travel the world validating and strengthening our rescue partner network. By way of example, I have travelled to 15 countries in the last 20 months to vet our subcontractors and open up global evacuation networks. These trips took me deep into the Amazon, the Congolese rainforest, Galapagos Islands, Himalayan mountains, Rwandan forests, Arabian Peninsula, Bekaa Valley, Patagonia, the coldest coastal city in Latin America and many major international cities where we find sophisticated healthcare and medical evacuation partners.

Your background as a security officer has taken you all over the world; what has been the most challenging place for you to work in terms of the culture and logistics?

There is no area on earth more challenging than another.

Overall, I have travelled to 35 countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, North America and South America and have evacuated people out of six of the seven continents

Overall, I have travelled to 35 countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, North America and South America and have evacuated people out of six of the seven continents. Each one of these continents has its own set of evacuation challenges. Many of the challenges come from the unbelievably remote areas that our members travel to, government regulations, unplanned security events or natural disasters. All of these things can add layers of complexity onto what would otherwise be a pretty simple evacuation. You have to drill down into the DNA of an operation. It takes a tremendous amount of unconventional manoeuvering to successfully evacuate our members from remote regions of the world. I believe the reason we are so good at what we do is because we spend months planning operations and going through battle drills. Overall, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean seems to be much easier logistically, while Asia has proven challenging at times. Additionally, evacuations from Polar regions take a tremendous amount of logistical planning.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

What I enjoy most is knowing that when I walk out of the Operations Center after a long day of work, I have made a real impact in someone’s life. My mission is to get our members back to their families. On a personal note, it’s really as simple as knowing that I have a small part in making sure that a daughter or son get to hug their mom or dad again. In many instances, when members contact Global Rescue, we are their last best hope of survival. I know this and I take my job very seriously. 

Those of us who work at Global Rescue are just as adventurous as our members. All of us travel and pursue our hobbies like scuba diving, flying, parachuting, fly fishing, motorcycling, trekking, mountain climbing, and cycling to name a few. I am fortunate to work with a highly trained group of former Navy SEALs and other Special Forces personnel, doctors, nurses, paramedics and our partner Johns Hopkins Division of Special Operations.

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of AirMed&Rescue