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RECCO helicopter device a new asset to mountain rescue in the Bow Valley

“The longer that you are in need of help, the worse it gets. So we shorten that time frame, hopefully the outcome is better than some of the outcomes we’ve had in the past."

BOW VALLEY – A piece of technology that can make searching the vast mountain terrain for lost individuals significantly easier is now in the Bow Valley.

Alpine Helicopter Inc. has received a RECCO SAR helicopter device on a two-year pilot program, which will help its rescue team, joined by Parks Canada and Kananaskis Public Safety, find people whether they’re buried in an avalanche, or lost in the woods.

“It’s a big deal because it’s so new to North America, it’s pretty exciting that we get to trial it and see how the technology works,” said Todd Cooper, the director of flight operations for the intermediate fleet at Alpine Helicopter Inc.  

“It’ll change the time frame, so instead of having potentially a drawn out search over days, this could make things a lot quicker. I think that’s the really neat part of it is that we can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.”

Apline Helicopter Inc. hosted a workshop on the device that included rescue teams from here in the Bow Valley, Cranbrook, Kimberley and Golden; as well as representatives from RECCO. While the tool itself has often been touted as an avalanche tool, Mike Koppang, Kananaskis Country public safety specialist, explained how it can be used for more.

“It gives us an opportunity to look for people outside the avalanche world as well, people lost in trees, people lost in the forest, who are equipped with these reflectors,” said Koppang.

“It’s taking it from being just an avalanche tool and expanding it to a multi-use tool for searchers.” 

The RECCO SAR helicopter device works by sending a radar signal, described by representatives as like a beam from a flashlight. The signal is echoed back to the detector once it hits a RECCO reflector and points the rescuers to the direction of the victim with the return-signal growing stronger the closer they get. The system has been praised for its expediency in cases where individuals are buried in avalanches.

“You can think about it as a professional rescue tool that has something called a detector,” said RECCO's director of education and technical support in North America Daniel Howlett.

“A good way to think about it is taking a flashlight, shining a flashlight beam and it hits a mirror and you see the light come back to you. We’re out there with a detector underneath the helicopter searching for a reflector. As soon as the device goes over the reflector, you get the signal back and you can narrow the location down and find the exact point where the reflector is.”

There are only four other RECCO SAR helicopter systems in North America in Montana, Utah, Vancouver, and Washington state. The device itself has only been around for two years, only entering the North American market in the last year. Each rescuer present during the RECCO workshop was clear in their belief that the system will be integral to searches spanning across the province, not just the Bow Valley.

“It’s great that RECCO’s really keen to put the technology and the tool here,” said Koppang.

“It’s not just for us, it’s obviously going to be a tool that can be used throughout the region. It’s not just a Banff-Kananaskis tool, it can be transported anywhere quite quickly throughout the province, so it’s a great tool.

"It’s great that they’ve partnered with Alpine Helicopters, too ... they are one of the primary rescue agencies around and they do a lot of great work in the community, so it’s great that they’re here.”

Currently, rescuers in the valley conduct searches for days, sometimes weeks, on end and, as Brian Webster, manager of visitor safety for Banff National Park explained, a lot of it is done by walking on foot through areas, or looking out the window of a helicopter.

“When you do have lost persons – that’s very man power intensive,” said Webster.

“Literally what you’re doing is having ground searchers just walking around looking for the person, or people in a helicopter flying around looking and the chances of locating them are quite low so it’s very, very man power intensive.”

The addition of this device means rescue teams can mark off large areas in a short amount of time. However, the system only works if those exploring the vast mountainous terrain have a RECCO reflector strip and are what rescuers call searchable.

“If someone is searchable, so they have a RECCO reflector strip in their clothing, which hopefully we’ll see more and more of that being a standard in the future,” said Webster.

“If they have that RECCO chip in their clothing then if the RECCO [SAR helicopter device] is working the way it should, you can cover off way more ground than you otherwise could and just eliminate terrain.”

While the machine is a significant asset to future rescues, each rescuer present stressed the importance of having a RECCO reflector strip as well as ensuring people know you have one. The reflector itself is already added to a few outdoor clothing brands such as Patagonia and some manufacturers are pushing for it to be added to climbing harnesses.

Local climber and photographer Will Gadd said he’s been working with a few partners to get as many outdoor brands on board with the strip.

“It’s becoming more widespread, both Parks and I have been working with different gear manufacturers,” said Gadd.

“Now Arc’teryx has reflectors in all of their alpine gear for next year, so that’s pretty exciting … and the same thing has happened with Black Diamond and Patagonia, a few other manufacturers. The hope is to get it into a more widespread areas, bigger manufacturers that don’t make hard-core mountain gear – get it into that stuff as well.”

As a climber himself, Gadd expressed his excitement that the valley has been chosen for a RECCO device.

“Even if you’re a total minimalist, it gives you some way to be found in avalanche terrain and ice climbers and alpine climbers have often been relatively slow to start using beacons and standard avalanche gear,” said Gadd.

“That’s changing quickly, and that’s a lot due to Alberta Parks and the national parks pushing that, but still a little bit slow on the uptake. At least if someone has a reflector, it’s the bare minimum to find them and cut down on search times. We’ve had a few situations here where there’s been long searches for people without avalanche gear and if they had RECCO that could dramatically cut down on the search time, and the search time is the most expensive part of a whole rescue – just finding somebody.”

RECCO itself isn’t completely new to the valley. Cooper said Alpine has a few handheld machines, which work in the same fashion, but this device covers a much larger area in a much shorter amount of time. He said the team is looking forward to getting used to the system.

“Because there’s only two in Canada, we’re really in the experimental stage so the two-year trial period will allow us to get used to using it, find out what its weaknesses are, and its benefits, and then from there decide if we’re going to carry on with, I think we will. Just being out flying it and doing the testing, there’s a lot of potential there.”

Created in Sweden by Magnus Granhed after he lost a friend in an avalanche, the first prototype of a RECCO machine was officially released in 1980. According to the RECCO website, Granhed built the prototype at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology.

“The transmitting and transponding devices were two separate parts, compared to the one-device detector today,” the website said.

“The crucial issue with the original system was that the two parts disturbed each other, which made it hard to have them too close while searching due to signal interference.”

Over the next few years, Granhed continued to work on the first device, known as R1, perfecting the system. In 1984, an outdoor brand agreed to add RECCO reflectors into one of its items; Trappeur (eventually bought by Rossignal) integrated the strips into ski boot. Two years later, the RECCO reflector was added into a clothing brand called Degre7. Now, RECCO reflectors can be found in 150 clothing and outdoor equipment brands.

In 1987, the system was responsible for its first live recovery after a woman was localised from a helicopter in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

The hope is that the helicopter device will be used to recover live persons here in the valley as well.  

“The longer that you are in need of help, the worse it gets. So we shorten that time frame, hopefully the outcome is better than some of the outcomes we’ve had in the past,” said Cooper.

Cooper said the next steps are learning the system inside and out and educating the public on RECCO reflectors, hoping that soon everyone going into the backcountry is searchable.

Visit RECCO’s website for more on the device history and how it works. Cooper said Alpine Helicopter Inc. is hoping to sell RECCO reflectors in the near future, but in the meantime, check out some of the various brands already integrating it into their clothing.


About the Author: Alana MacLeod

Alana MacLeod is a reporter for the Rocky Mountain Outlook. Previously, she worked for Global News Toronto as a news producer and writer. Follow her on Twitter: @Lans_macleod
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