Paige Blankenbuehler
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November 14, 2012
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Summit County Flight for Life host first helicopter beacon training

Summit County's Flight For Life program held an avalanche beacon training Tuesday on a technology new to the state that will assist in responding to emergencies.

The beacon receiver, which is five times more powerful than a hand-held beacon, hangs approximately four meters below the helicopter and enables a rescue team to receive beacon signals and locate victims within an avalanche area.

The skier or trapped person has to be wearing a beacon in order for the Flight For Life beacon to pick up their signal.

The rescue tool, with only a handful of other such beacons nationwide will serve as a resource statewide in responding to avalanche emergencies.

"We will dispatch to areas in Colorado that have an emergency," said Kevin Kelble, flight paramedic for Flight for Life. "As the first in Colorado to have this technology, this beacon equipped helicopter is an asset in mountainous areas like Summit County."

During the training, pilots navigated an area to pinpoint four target beacons "buried" in an area to simulate an avalanche.

"This is an excellent tool to help us improve avalanche rescue operations. With the external beacon we have an immense receiving range and can cover large amounts of terrain quickly, and safely search areas that are still dangerous with secondary avalanches," Kelble said. "We can also use it statewide and in difficult landing terrain that's tough to access from the ground."

When it comes to searching for a victim immersed by an avalanche, time is critical. With the beacon receiver equipped helicopter, Flight for Life pilots can pick up a signal from a victim from 150-200 meters.

Having a helicopter search an avalanche path from the air should make for a more efficient search, allowing rescue crews on the ground to zero in on the victims' locations and begin digging for them.

"We can search a much larger area much faster," Kelble said.

During the simulated search, the Flight for Life helicopter hovered about 30 feet off the ground, sweeping back and forth in a grid pattern across the slide path.

Manuel Genswein, an avalanche beacon expert, came in from Switzerland to conduct the training Tuesday explaining the grid search used to pinpoint avalanche victims.

"It's important to make sure that you get complete coverage," Weinsen said. "You can't just do a perfect square, but the sensitivity is pretty good on these things."

He and the rest of the Flight for Life team emphasized that while this new technology improves the resources of avalanche rescue teams, in no way is it a substitute for being properly trained to travel in avalanche terrain, and to know how to use personal avalanche equipment.

The chances of a victim surviving an avalanche if not found after the first 15 minutes begin to decrease steeply, and according to Weinsen, the helicopter arriving on the scene 15-30 minutes after an accident is a "best-case scenario" dependent on location.

"It's an extremely powerful tool that can pick up beacon from very far away," Kelble said. "Rescue teams can search areas that are still dangerous and we can also cover a huge amount of area very quickly."

The beacon receiver can also pinpoint the locations of numerous victims by marking the areas where a signal is picked up for ground rescue teams.

The antenna in the beacons transmitter works off an electromagnetic signal transmitted by ground beacons. The receiver picks up the signal while notifying the pilot of the location based on audio alerts.

As the signal strengthens, the audio alert gets louder alerting the pilot of the proximity.

Loren Courtney, a pilot for Flight for Life with experience with the beacon receiver in Salt Lake City, aided in the training Tuesday.

"The training went really well," he said. "There's a learning curve with using this technology but all of our pilots got in between 5-8 meters of the target beacons."

Every year hundreds of people - typically skiers, snowboarders or snowmobilers - get caught in

avalanches.

The goal of all avalanche safety instruction is to help skiers and snowboarders make smart decisions in the backcountry so they can minimize their chances of having to deal with an avalanche and know what to do in the event one occurs.

Even with helicopter beacon receiver technology, a rescue would not be possible unless the victim was equipped with a transmitting hand-held beacon.

"The most important thing anyone can take away with this new addition is that avalanche safety is more important than ever," Courtney said. "If you're going into the back country you must have all of the right equipment with you - you must have your beacon."


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The Summit Daily Updated Nov 14, 2012 12:41AM Published Nov 14, 2012 12:39AM Copyright 2012 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.