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Flight for Life demonstration showcases tools essential in avalanche search and rescue missions

Search and rescue teams gathered Monday, Jan. 10, at Loveland Ski Area for a demonstration of an external avalanche beacon receiver on select Flight for Life helicopters.
Liz Copan/For the Summit Daily News

Flight for Life partnered with local search and rescue organizations to put on a live demonstration of its external avalanche beacon receiver, which helped in a staged avalanche rescue Monday, Jan. 10, across from Loveland Ski Area in Dry Gulch.

Folks from Loveland Ski Patrol, Flight for Life, Alpine Rescue Team, Clear Creek Sheriff’s Office and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center gathered around a simulated avalanche debris site, where they buried avalanche rescue transceivers, a dummy and a human volunteer for the rescue teams to find.

“What we’re doing in avalanche rescue really hasn’t changed over the years, but where we can make big improvements is in coordination, and that just comes down to working with our fellow rescue organizations,” said Dale Atkins, a technical specialist with Alpine Rescue Team out of Jefferson County.



Atkins said the location for Monday’s demonstration was ideal because of its accessibility, but it’s also a location where avalanches have killed people in the past.

“We’re here training in this beautiful playground, but it’s a playground where accidents happen,” Atkins said. “When the mountain rescue teams and ski patrols train together, we’re looking to improve efficiencies, so we can be more effective. When we’re more effective, we can find people faster, and that’s going to hopefully save lives.”



Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said training demonstrations like this one highlight the resources in Colorado for search and rescue, as well as the collaborative process across the groups involved. As more folks are exploring the backcountry, he said the tools available for search and rescue efforts continue to grow.

One of the tools highlighted at the demonstration was the beacon receiver, which is used on a helicopter and can detect from the air avalanche transceivers worn by individual people.

Greene said that when getting ready to go out into the backcountry, the avalanche transceiver should be set to send a signal, which can then be used to find an individual buried in snow.

“Most of the time, if we have somebody that’s recovered alive from an avalanche, it’s because the people in their group, right close to them, are the ones that do the rescue and get them out. Because you don’t have a lot of time once you’re buried in the avalanche,” Greene said.

Search and rescue teams gathered Monday, Jan. 10, at Loveland Ski Area for a demonstration of an external avalanche beacon receiver on select Flight for Life helicopters.
Liz Copan/For the Summit Daily News

Chad Miller, a lead flight paramedic with Flight for Life, said all of its helicopters have a certified flight paramedic and an advanced practice nurse on board. He said practicing collaboratively with all the organizations like this allows them to be better prepared when a mission comes up.

“When we do have a real-life mission, when somebody is actually trapped in an avalanche, we’ve already worked together before, and it’s not the first time we’re all seeing what assets or resources each of us can bring to the table,” Miller said.

Miller said the external avalanche beacon receiver gives Flight for Life the ability to search large swaths of avalanche debris quickly — even in dangerous avalanche terrain. He said Flight for Life got its first avalanche beacon in 2011 and got it certified through the Federal Aviation Administration to begin use in 2012. Three of the company’s helicopters are now equipped with the beacons, including the one based in Frisco.

“Generally, what happens is a sheriff’s office, search and rescue or a ski patrol will call us and say, ‘We’ve got a report of an avalanche with potential victims, and we’d like for you guys to go up with your external receiver and do a search and see if you get any hits,’” Miller said.

If the beacon gets a hit from a transceiver, the helicopter is also equipped with flag markers that are dropped from the aircraft for the ground team to come in and do a final, more refined search with rescue dogs and probe poles, Miller explained.

The tool was in use during the search for two missing snowshoers Sunday, Jan. 9, on Hoosier Pass, but the pair were not wearing avalanche transceivers. A rescue dog ultimately found the bodies.


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