Tuesday, 18 January 2011

RECCO in Scotland

RECCO Testing Glencoe 21& 22nd January 2009

“RECCO is not a replacement for knowledge or experience in the backcountry. Nor is it intended for companion rescue or as an alternative for a transceiver” RECCO Sweden
The RECCO system was developed by Magnus Granhed in collaboration with the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1983 after he lost a friend in an avalanche and experienced how slow and difficult search and rescue methods were at the time. The first live rescue attributed to RECCO occurred in 1987 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. RECCO is now used by more than 600 ski resorts and rescue operations worldwide. To view a list of resorts that use the RECCO system and who integrate the reflectors into clothing, visit RECCO Sweden

Until recently RECCO was primarily used by search and rescuers as a backup system due to the minimal number of RECCO reflectors in the use. That has changed over the past few years as more than 20 million reflectors have been integrated into popular winter sport products by companies such as Haglofs, Arcteryx and The North Face to name but three. The new dual function R9 detector complements the use of avalanche transceivers and minimizes the required number of rescuers at risk in avalanche terrain.

Once on the scene, in a 100m x 100m avalanche field it can take 20 rescuers six to 20 hours with a probe pole to search the 10,000-square-meter area. A single rescuer equipped with the RECCO system can take a quick 10 to 15 minutes to locate buried victims. RECCO reflectors are small match box-size tabs built into outdoor clothing, ski and snowboard boots, and helmets and return harmonic radar signals emitted by the RECCO detector for rapid pinpoint location by search and rescuers. The reflectors are available in products produced by more than 200 manufacturers, including The North Face, Arcteryx, Helly Hansen, Atomic Ski Boots and PRO-TEC Helmets. The reflectors don’t require a battery and are integrated into clothing or equipment that is worn on the body and can’t be left behind or turned off.

The dual function capabilities of the R9 system (RECCO & 457) allows rescue workers to use a single unit to greatly improve their speed and efficiency and accuracy. The R9 weighs less than two pounds and can easily be carried by patrollers, mountain rescuers. The R9 detector provides straight-line directionality from up to 200m in the air and up to 20m in snow.

This test was carried out on a unit kindly loaned from Swedish MR/Ski Rescue by Rickard Svedjesten from Hybalsdalen/ARE under an agreement from Christina Lydsdahl of RECCO Sweden. Rickard is an old friend and one of Sweden’s ICAR representatives. I first met him in France at an international conference where I gave a lecture on avalanche rescue where there were rescuers with many years more experience than mine. The event was hosted by the director of the French Avalanche Association (AENA) and I was very nervous.  The seriousness of my situation was relieved by copious “demi pressions” passed to calm me by Rickard and his delegation.  A very healthy attitude to rescue and alcohol ensured us Scots and the Swedes got on very well as demonstrated by his trust in sending over an expensive piece of equipment based solely on “Facebook” wall to wall chatter. Davy Gunn of BASP/MR & Jeff Starkey of BASP/ Nevis Range Ski Patrol carried out this test.

We had little training, only familiarity from witnessing demonstrations of older RECCO units at FIPS conferences. We had only intuition and a 2 page guide. We found the device smaller, lighter and more portable than we imagined and very easy to use. Reflectors gave a very strong signal from as much as 50m down to 20m if the reflector orientation was not flat or was behind a dense object.

A primary sweep often picked up an initial signal.  Using the avalanche tip sides as a boundary and marking a search zone is a “must do” action to ensure accurate search strips. Marking the direction of travel with small marker flags or some other method is a must.  Search strips must be narrow at 8m (4 +4) or 10m (5+5).

Wearing the headphones gives much better sensitivity to the subtle initial “beeps” at long range or poor weather.  We tried finding mobile phones with them switched off.  The range for mobiles was between 4.5 and 2 m requiring the operator to almost be on top to get a loud signal, but this varied to as much as 4m with some phones giving a stronger signal.   We confounded ourselves at first while searching in the dark until we realized that a head-torch is a good radar reflector.  Better than the phone in some cases.  All mobiles, radios and head torches therefore need to be well away from the search zone as the unit picks them up as background reflectors. At night illumination from out with the search zone from handheld search-lights would be most effective.

Due to the directional nature of RECCO, ground can be covered very quickly so even though the unit is designed primarily to detect the RECCO reflector, mobiles, cameras and head torches which have a harmonic will be detected quickly especially if not buried greater than 1.5m which is within the high survival probability group. This requires a narrow search strip, but within a defined area and a fleet of foot operator.  This will be faster than any avalanche search method available to Scottish rescue for those without a transceiver at the moment.  Dogs of course also have apart to play, but due to logistics and travel may arrive on scene after organized rescue teams are on scene conducting an initial search with RECCO.

Additional Benefits
First thoughts are, that as Scotland has no transceiver culture and low avalanche awareness in relation to Alpine countries then RECCO could have a place. Both the cost of transceivers and the lack of a transceiver culture would always make companion rescue a hit or miss affair if the victim was buried so burials need speedy organized rescue with the appropriate resources.

An additional benefit of RECCO is to the rescuer in our opinion.  Acting as a back up to avalanche searching for fellow rescuers. Virtually all Scottish teams exposed to avalanche risk reduce the consequences to themselves with transceivers. However, the single most confounding issue at any avalanche rescue is transceivers auto-reverting, or when inexperienced search managers fail to ensure buddy checks to prevent false transmits.  Auto revert is not a big issue in companion rescue as most parties are small.  In organized rescue numbers can be great with a constant background of false transmits.  Alpine rescuers have dealt with this by strict search discipline, limiting numbers to the initial search area, and by using RECCO as a safety backup.

Canceling auto revert puts the rescuer at risk from a secondary slide.  Many Alpine rescuers have RECCO reflectors on their helmets, boots or in clothing.  Should a secondary slide bury the searchers then RECCO can be deployed by back up rescuers waiting out with the danger zone (in addition an often forgotten but effective warning is also spotter with a whistle so you can run!).

If I knew nothing of RECCO 9 but witnessed its ease of use I would say every team should have one.  However, in the real world these units are not cheap to rent with a 5 year rental at 2,500 euro (ex VAT for which we wouldn’t be liable?).  For this reason its uptake might be limited to four of the mountain areas, three of which have ski slopes with avalanche history that would also benefit.  These RECCO units could also be air mobile to assist other teams when an operator and buddy could be tasked to help out from out-with a team’s normal operational area.

RECCO in our opinion has a value for use in locating avalanche victims in Scotland.  These may be either the ski or mountaineering public, or in a worst case scenario rescuers themselves. As this is along established search system we may perhaps ask why its use has not been considered before.  Worthy of consideration is that this system is systemic in all nations where avalanche rescue is undertaken, and there is a public perception that we may already have the technology as the clothing has been readily available in the UK for over 18 years.

We would like to thank the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland and the MRC of S Avalanche course teaching faculty for their sponsorship and support in this test.

Written by Davy Gunn - Glencoe Mountain Rescue
Assisted on the practical trial by Jeff Starkey - Nevis Range Ski Patrol

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