November 21, 2010 in Outdoors

Technology allows helicopters to speed search for victims

Dan Testa Flathead Beacon
Associated Press photo

In this photo taken Oct. 26, the ALERT Air Ambulance descends to the helicopter pad at Kalispell Regional Medical Center after returning from an avalanche rescue training mission in the Blacktail Mountain area.
(Full-size photo)

KALISPELL – The ALERT helicopter climbed vertically above the air ambulance program’s hangar at the Kalispell Regional Medical Center complex. A paramedic held his arm outside the open door of the chopper pointing a square, yellow device down at the ground, toward a small chip on the launch pad.

The crew was training with one of two new, state-of-the-art search tools they will deploy beginning this winter to aid in the rescue of avalanche victims in northwest Montana.

The new systems could change the role medical helicopter programs play in rescues.

Instead of just providing care for avalanche victims once they are located by teams on the ground, the chopper teams also can assist in the search for buried victims.

“Our ability to help out with the rescue resources will increase,” said Rocco Altobelli, an ALERT flight paramedic. “We’ll probably start getting called earlier than we were in the past because of that increased capability.”

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 — as opposed to beginning at the top of a slide path and painstakingly working their way down.

“We can search a much larger area much faster,” Altobelli added.

The recent acquisition of these search tools makes ALERT one of three helicopter services in the United States to possess and use such technology, and the only one in Montana.

The expanded capabilities consist of two separate systems, including the “Barryvox VS 2000 Pro EXT,” a large, cylindrical antenna that hangs below the chopper during flight and greatly improves rescuers’ ability to detect signals from traditional, personal transceivers buried in an avalanche.

The ALERT team also learned how to search with a RECCO system, where rescuers in the chopper use a handheld detector to bounce a radio signal off a tiny reflector containing diodes. These RECCO reflectors are increasingly stitched onto the clothing or equipment of backcountry travelers, from skiers to snowmobilers.

The Barryvox can search a range of nearly 300 feet, compared to personal beacons, which typically search a range anywhere from 30 to 90 feet wide.

The RECCO’s range is about 100 feet, though it depends on the depth of burial and water content of the snow, according to Manuel Genswein, one of the world’s foremost avalanche experts, who traveled to Kalispell from Switzerland recently to run the training session on the equipment.

The key will be in learning when to deploy the systems in the most effective way possible, the ALERT staff said.

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