Speed the search: Flight for Life offers new avalanche search tool
Ryan Summerlin December 6, 2011
Summit County’s Flight for Life Colorado helicopter could be the second air medical device in the U.S. to be outfitted with an external beacon receiver – a powerful device that hangs below the helicopter to assist in locating avalanche victims.
The University of Utah recently broke the ice in the air medical world with testing and training with the device, which has been common in Europe, Canada and New Zealand for years, Flight for Life paramedic Kevin Kelble said. Kelble is also in charge of coordinating the statewide Avalanche Deployment and Lift Ticket programs, which bring Flight for Life’s services together with ski patrol and search and rescue needs.
With Utah’s Air Methods program paving the way, Kelble wants to get the device on board in Colorado to speed up the search process – and keep it safer.
“We can minimize the danger with this tool. Why not use it?” he said, adding that it’s another tool in the belt for rescue missions.
“We have a long, long history of committing resources to support ski patrol and search and rescue,” Kelble said of the beacon installation. It will require initial expenses for permitting and training, and ongoing expenses for the same, he said. But assisting backcountry rescues is something that’s been a part of the Flight for Life operation since the 1992 creation of Avalanche Deployment and the 1996 Lift Ticket programs. Kelble attributes it to being one of 34 nonprofit air medical helicopters remaining nationwide.
“We won’t put financial concerns in front of a victim,” Kelble said. “Our philosophy is to support the patient, not make money off the patient. All of what we do is designed to support the sheriff, the patient and the community.”
What’s different in the external beacon search is the ability to search a 100-200 meter range, rather than the 30-meter range typical of handheld beacons used on the ground. The device is 26 inches long, 6 inches in diameter and allows operators in the aircraft to use it like they would a handheld beacon. The helicopter essentially hovers, moving slowly in a slow, defined pattern, to pinpoint the subject in an avalanche debris field.
It can work much faster, though Kelble couldn’t say exactly by what factor. He used the example of the massive Peak 7 slide from roughly two decades ago. It took three days to recover the bodies using search lines – work that could be completed in less than a day with the new technology.
Once located, the signals can be marked – even in dangerous areas with slides that have yet to break and in difficult landing terrain that’s also tough to access.
“From there, we can roll into our resources,” Kelble said. Those resources range from shuttling in rescue teams, “divide and conquer” a slide by searching from the air and from the ground, and more.
The Summit County device is expected to be in operation in 2012, provided Federal Aviation Administration permitting is approved, and training certifications are completed. It will be the only of five Flight for Life helicopters outfitted with the external beacon, meaning it could be deployed statewide to assist in rescues.
“It’s a statewide resource,” Kelble said.
Kelble is sure the new device will improve rescue operations in Colorado.
What’s still unknown is how, exactly, it interfaces with the existing Avalanche Deployment and Lift Ticket programs.
But those kinks will begin to be ironed out in upcoming workshops with “the beacon Einstein” himself, Manuel Genswein. The Swiss expert has devoted his life to studying, understanding and improving beacon technology and tactics.
Genswein brings the external beacon with him when he arrives in town on Thursday, Kelble said. He’s scheduled to work with Flight for Life’s Summit crew Monday and Tuesday next week, training them on how to use the beacon.