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Faster, safer avalanche rescue

New technology allows rescuers to search from the air

Posted: March 6, 2014 - 1:02pm  |  Updated: March 7, 2014 - 10:43am

Alaska Electric Light & Power Inc. has purchased a piece of equipment — a long-range receiver that mounts to a helicopter — that will make avalanche rescues faster, more efficient and less dangerous for rescue workers.

“With avalanche rescue, essentially you have 20 minutes, half an hour at the most,” Mike Janes, AEL&P Avalanche Forecaster, said. “It comes down to just reducing the amount of time it takes to get someone unburied. Even a couple of minutes can make a huge difference in the likelihood of a live recovery.”

This new technology will increase the likelihood of finding buried avalanche victims alive.

Janes said the primary reason AEL&P purchased the long-range receiver was to aid forecasters and linemen potentially caught in avalanches, but they’ve chosen to store the device at Coastal Helicopters so it’s available to Juneau Mountain Rescue, Eaglecrest Ski Patrol, Kensington Mine, or whoever needs it.

In Juneau, rescuers look for two kinds of signals: an avalanche beacon, also called a transceiver (which allows for companion rescue, and which rescuers agree is most important) and a Recco reflector, which is sewn into a large amount of outdoor wear prior to purchase. Juneau City and Borough Emergency Coordinator Tom Mattice said the city has distributed reflectors to people who live out Thane Road and drive back and forth along the avalanche-prone route.

Right now rescuers scan for both kinds of signals from the ground.

The long-range receiver hangs from the side of a helicopter and allows rescuers to search for beacon signals from the air.

“A helicopter search allows people to search a wider area,” Ed Shanley, an avalanche field technician at AEL&P, said. “What the helicopter can do in an hour might take a few days on foot.”

When a person reported missing in a backcountry area is wearing a beacon, the long-range receiver will enable Search and Rescue to cover more avalanche paths, Shanley said.

Helicopter searches will also help when more than one person has been buried in the same avalanche, as they allow for much faster searching, Manuel Genswein said. Genswein is a Swiss avalanche expert AEL&P brought to Juneau to train rescuers.

The Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center also purchased a helicopter setup that will allow rescuers to better search for Recco reflectors, said Mattice, who’s also the center’s director. Rescuers already have Recco receivers, but the hookup feeds the signal into the helicopter’s audio and allows them to search by air. Genswein also trained rescuers in Recco searching.

Coastal Helicopters donated half the helicopter time used in the training.

“The investment was inexpensive for the possible benefit of the ability to do better on response,” Mattice said.

Juneau Mountain Rescue member Karl Bausler said the Recco hookup would have come in handy in several cases he could think of. In one, about 20 years ago, a weatherman slid 1,500 feet near Dan Moller. Rescuers spent a full day looking for him. That could have been shortened substantially, he said.

“The more modes of detection, the more probable it is,” Bausler said that a person would be found.

Mattice and others emphasized, however, that the most important thing is to wear a transceiver, be trained in avalanche rescue and to always travel with a partner. When someone is caught in an avalanche, adhering to those recommendations will still make the largest difference between life and death.

“Recco always means organized rescue,” Genswein said. “After 15 minutes, still about 90 percent of people are alive. At 35 minutes, only 30 percent of people are alive … The primary safety equipment is always the transceiver.”

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