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Avalanche rescue apps for your smartphone

  
  
  

Want to find the nearest gas station, read reviews of a bottle of wine by scanning the bottle, or find someone buried in an avalanche?

There’s an app for that.

Turning a smartphone into an avalanche victim locator is a bold and innovative idea, and these three European companies are now marketing apps that they claim turns a smartphone into an avalanche rescue tool:

While the specifics differ in each app, they use WiFi or Bluetooth signals, and the idea is that two smartphones running the same app can be used to find each other. It's an exciting concept, however, the smartphone apps have serious shortcomings when it comes to being used as an avalanche transceiver, including:

  • Battery life – International standards for avalanche transceivers require them to transmit over 200 hours. Smartphones hardly last a day, especially in the cold.
  • Compatibility – These apps only work with another phone using exactly the same app while different brands of avalanche transceivers all work on the same frequency so different brands can find each other.
  • Antenna – Modern transceivers use two antennas, smartphones only have one, making them less accurate.
  • Reliability – Ever try to use your touch screen while wearing gloves in a snowstorm, or have your OS crash during a rescue?
  • Harness – Smartphones do not have a harness designed to prevent being torn away during an avalanche. 

But the biggest issue appears to be the signal itself – avalanche transceivers operate at 457kHz because it transmits very well through heavy snow, rocks and wood, and is extremely accurate. Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) Director Gilles Valade explains: “WiFi and Bluetooth signals are significantly weakened when passing through snow, and easily deflected by solid objects we expect to see in avalanche debris. And the accuracy of a GPS signal is nowhere near the precision required for finding an avalanche victim.”

avalanche transceiver

The apps have been tested at distances around 40-metres and up to 2-metre burials, but the tests were done by the companies that make the apps, so the tests were likely conducted in optimal conditions. Unknown factors in their performance include a person lying over the phone, wet or dense snow, and objects in the snow interfering with the signal.

So the question remains: Is there a place for these apps?  After reading through the websites of the three apps (interesting reading by the way), I tried to think of a scenario where the app may have a place. One possibility is the use described as appropriate on the iSis site: skiing deep powder in-bounds at a ski area. (To iSis' credit, they are the only one of these app makers that specifically says that the technology is not appropriate for use in the backcountry.) But then you'd need a friend who has the same app as well as a shovel and probe. Rescuing a person under avalanche debris if the rescuer does not have a shovel and probe is nearly impossible. And if you own a shovel and probe you’d better have a proper avalanche transceiver as well.

The CAC has posted a press release and a comprehensive paper on the app technology with the clear message that these apps are inadequate for avalanche rescue purposes, and the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) has posted the paper on their website.

Besides the warnings from these respected professional organizations, the apps are getting a lot of bad press, and perhaps the mistake being made is in marketing more than technology. Rather than promoting them as technology that turns your smartphone into a reliable avalanche rescue tool, they should be promoted more in the way Todd Guyn, the Mountain Safety Manager at CMH Heli-Skiing, described his view of the apps: "It is an interesting concept of  technology and possibly useful in  an unplanned, unprepared  avalanche rescue. Having said that, I like to have the right tool for the right job. If you are ill do you want to go to the doctor or do you want to pull out your app? In the end it is your life."

By the end of my research I came to the obvious conclusion that smartphones are not designed - at least not yet - to be used as avalanche rescue technology for backcountry use. You wouldn’t replace the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) on your boat or the smoke detector in your bedroom with a smartphone app, so don’t use a smartphone in place of an avalanche transceiver either.

Photo: Just because this avalanche transceiver is about the same size as your phone doesn't mean your phone can do the same job.

Comments

I have to agree. When I first heard about using an app as a means of rescue I shook my head. I would never rely on my phone to save my life.
Posted @ Monday, November 04, 2013 7:03 PM by Dave Markel
@Toepher 
 
Thanks for the accurate, succinct summary of the problem with apps that purport to be buried avalanche victim locators. But I can't agree with your conclusion, "...that smartphones are not designed - at least not yet - to be used as avalanche rescue technology for backcountry use." Current avalanche victim locator apps, at least in their current incarnation, are bad. However, apps that notify rescuers and give precise location information do have an important place in the broader domain of avalanche rescue.  
 
If you had written "...avalanche search technology...," I'd be in total agreement. While many folks use the words search and rescue interchangeably, the words have very different meanings.  
 
Search means to find, and and rescue means to save.  
 
Today's versions of smartphones and associated "avalanche victim locator" apps are not good enough to reliably find a buried person. However, apps that notify rescuers and give one's precise GPS coordinates are huge time savers and can make the difference between life and death.  
 
North America lags behind Europe in these sorts of "help, here-I-am" apps. One of the best is the iRega Emergency App for alerting rescuers and giving location coordinates. Unfortunately, it's not really available to folks outside Switzerland.  
 
Conventional wisdom (and technology) dictates that apps must have a cell (voice, SMS, or data) connection to work, but that's no longer true, at least in one case. The Uepaa app (another Swiss-only app) works outside of cell connections using a novel approach to chain together smartphone connections to relay an emergency message to authorities. The aap can also notify these phones in essence creating a small-crowd sourcing solution to aid one in distress.  
 
It's interesting to note, at least to an avalanche nerd like me, that when the first transceivers were introduced 40+ years, they were frowned upon by many credible mountain and avalanche experts.  
 
Times have changed, and maybe, just maybe, today's sub-par buried victim locator apps are a glimpse into the future.  
 
Read more: http://blog.canadianmountainholidays.com/heli-ski-blog/bid/99680/Avalanche-rescue-apps-for-your-smartphone#ixzz2joEtj9DB 
Posted @ Tuesday, November 05, 2013 4:24 PM by Dale Atkins
Dale, thank you for making the excellent point about the final wording. You're absolutely right. Mobile phone capability is a powerful rescue technology that is probably still just in its infancy. 
 
I too remember when transceivers were frowned upon, and not just because of technophobia; there was a very real fear (a fear just as valid today) that people would ski/climb into more dangerous terrain because of the potentially false sense of security provided by the device.  
 
It's an honor to have an avalanche guru such as yourself as a reader of the Heli-Ski Blog. Stay tuned for an article on crowd-sourcing rescue communication...
Posted @ Wednesday, November 06, 2013 7:39 AM by topher
that is a really good idea I will download the app!
Posted @ Monday, November 11, 2013 1:16 AM by bubblegum casting
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