This new helicopter-mounted detector could transform search and rescue in the Rockies

When someone is lost in the Rocky Mountains, every minute counts. Search and rescue experts are hoping a new device could help change that.

It will allow searchers to cover a square kilometre by air in roughly six minutes

The RECCO helicopter detector allows search and rescue professionals to beam a radar signal to find reflector strips that can be carried or integrated into outdoor clothing and gear. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

When someone is lost in the Rocky Mountains, every minute counts.

The often freezing temperatures and dangerous terrain compound a treacherous situation when someone is hurt or disoriented, and searching for a single person in the vast backcountry can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Search and rescue experts are hoping a new device could help change that.

This week, Alpine Helicopters in the Bow Valley became the second agency in Canada and the fourth in North America to deploy a RECCO Search and Rescue Helicopter Detector.

The red, cylindrical device weighs about 130 kilograms, looks like a large propane tank and hangs on a cable about 10 metres below a helicopter.

"It's fairly new technology, it could be a game changer, we'll have to see how it works out," said Todd Cooper, the Canmore base manager for Alpine Helicopters.

Alpine Helicopters responded to 274 search and rescue calls in the Canadian Rockies in 2019. It's now the fourth agency in North America to receive a RECCO detector, which experts say could be a gamechanger. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

RECCO devices work by sending out a direction radar signal. When the signal hits a RECCO reflector device, a passive transponder that doesn't require an energy source or maintenance that's typically worn on equipment or clothing, it bounces back, pointing the rescuer toward the missing person.

Handheld RECCO detectors have been used by local search and rescue groups for years. But, they only have a range of about 80 metres in the air or 20 metres through packed snow — meaning a slow sweep to detect, for example, an avalanche victim.

'It has huge potential'

The helicopter detector will allow searchers to cover a square kilometre by air in roughly six minutes.

"The really neat part of it is the area, the search pattern really gets smaller," said Cooper. "It can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time which makes a lot of difference looking for somebody if they're hurt or need help … it has huge potential."

Just last week, RECCO was used to track down the body of a woman buried under six metres of snow in an avalanche in Idaho. 

Cooper said local agencies finished training with the device on Jan. 9, so it's ready to go for the next call.

RECCO has lent the device to the agency for a two-year trial to collect data on how to improve it. After that, Alpine Helicopters and partners Parks Canada and Kananaskis Public Safety can decide whether to purchase the detector.

Alpine Helicopters said it responded to 274 search and rescue calls last year, and Cooper said this device would likely help in about half of responses. 

Public awareness will be key

But Brian Webster, Parks Canada visitor safety manager for Banff, Yoho and Kootenay, wants to caution backcountry adventurers that RECCO isn't a replacement for an avalanche beacon — it should just be worn or carried in tandem with other seasonal safety equipment.  

"Avalanche beacons allow parties to conduct self rescue. So, if you're a party of three skiers and somebody gets buried in an avalanche, you can use your transceiver to locate and dig them up very quickly," Webster said.

"The RECCO detection system is designed to be used by responding search and rescue organizations … this would replace a traditional probe line, this would replace using an avalanche search dog which would be more time consuming."

Todd Cooper, who represents Alpine Helicopters, says he's excited about the RECCO detector's potential to help searchers canvas large areas in a shorter amount of time. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Another big factor in whether the device will be a success will be the market penetration of RECCO reflectors in clothing.

The company has partnered with more than 150 outdoor brands — Webster said some people might not even realize the reflectors are in clothing they already own — but achieving even more awareness is going to be key.

"We need to make people aware of this and get it into more of the clothing, and not just traditional mountain clothing that people wear when they're hiking, but hunters should have it and fishermen should have it in their clothing," Webster said, adding that seeing the strips available in not just high-end outdoor wear will be important, especially for finding those lost in the summer.

RECCO products sold at MEC in Calgary start at $60 for a trail pack or $120 for a helmet, and go up into the $700-range for jackets. The reflectors can also be bought standalone from some online retailers for $39 or $49. Alpine Helicopters also has plans to sell the reflectors.

With files from Dave Gilson


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