Radar could help rescue skiers
Summit County Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado ” Rescue teams and ski patrols at local resorts are hoping that routine deployment of the radar-based RECCO locator system will help speed searches for buried avalanche victims and lost backcountry travelers.
“It’s another tool,” said Dale Atkins, a former Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster who is now spreading the word about the European RECCO system in the U.S.
All the ski resorts in Summit County now use the system, as does the Summit Search and Rescue Group. Experts say the RECCO system doesn’t replace any of the other commonly used search and rescue gear, including transceivers, probes or search dogs.
It’s just one additional way an organized rescue mission can zero in on a buried avalanche victim or lost hiker, Atkins said. Using good judgment and being savvy in the backcountry will always be the best way to avoid danger, he added.
The RECCO system consists of two parts ” reflectors and a detection unit.
The reflectors are wafers about the size and shape of a Band-Aid that are easily placed in ski jackets, pants, helmets or boots. The North Face, Arc’teryx and Quicksilver are a few of the manufacturers putting the reflector into their gear. The reflectors don’t need a power source and don’t need to be turned on.
The detector is a little bigger than a laptop computer. It sends out a signal and the reflector doubles the frequency and sends it back, Atkins said. It has a range of about 200 meters through the air, and the frequency can also penetrate snow.
“We actively practice with it,” said Dan Burnett, a Summit rescue group veteran. “The technology is getting better.”
The Breckenridge Ski Patrol also uses RECCO to retrieve avalanche shells that didn’t explode, said snow safety supervisor Bob Tierney.
Resorts have also found other uses. At some areas, all the rental helmets are equipped with a RECCO reflector, making it much easier to find lost kids. And in some cases, the system even helps snowmakers find hydrants buried under the snow, Tierney said.
But the primary use is still to find people lost in the backcountry or buried in avalanches. In Europe, Tierney said, about 60 percent of skiers and snowboarders have a RECCO reflector embedded in their gear. In the U.S. the percentage is much smaller, but growing.
Nearly all European search helicopters are equipped with a RECCO locator. With a good operator, a search team can quickly pinpoint the signal from a reflector. Searching for the signal from a helicopter enables rescue teams to effectively scour a large area quickly.
“They’ll drop you right on top of a guy,” said Colorado avalanche forecaster Scott Toepfer.
This winter, European rescue crews found two people alive with the system.
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