October 31, 2014
Winter 2013 - 2014

Learn how to: Perform A Beacon Search

What Is An Avalanche Beacon?

An avalanche transceiver or beacon can be used to transmit or receive a signal over a range of about 60 to 100 feet (20 - 30m). All current beacons operate on 457 khz frequency and all are compatible with each other. Everyone should wear a beacon under their jacket in transmit mode. If a person is buried by an avalanche, rescuers switch their beacons to receive mode, spread out across the debris and search for their partner using a standard search pattern. The video at right illustrates how to use an analog beacon. 
Avalanche beacons are somewhat difficult to use; they vary according to brand and they vary whether they are analog or digital.  Digital beacons operate differently: Read your owners manual carefully and practice frequently. 

Search patterns can also be confusing.  Take an avalanche class to learn how to use your beacon efficiently and effectively. 
Wearing an avalanche beacon only improves your chances if you are buried; it does not guarantee your survival.  It is much better to avoid burial then to rely upon rescue.

What is RECCO?

The RECCO system is a great additional tool if an organized rescue group like a ski patrol or local SAR team can respond immediately to an avalanche accident.  The RECCO system uses reflectors that are sometimes built into clothing.  Many rescue groups have special detectors which emit a signal that bounces off the reflector.  Using this signal, these groups can pinpoint the location of a buried person.
Remember, RECCO is NOT a replacement for carrying an avalanche beacon, and it is most effective if a rescue group can respond immediately.  You only have about 10 minutes to find a buried person.

Primary search phase
About one third of avalanche victims die from trauma and most victims that are completely buried do not survive. Consequently, it is imperative that rescuers can carry out a fast and effective rescue and that victims maximize their chances by wearing helmets to reduce trauma and carry either an Avalung that allows them to more easily breathe under the snow if they are completely buried or an ABS that tends to float them to the surface of the avalanche. Statistically a buried victim has a much better chance of survival if uncovered within 10 minutes.

Perform a beacon check at the start of each day. Check that each beacon functions properly in both transmit and receive modes. Practicing once a week throughout the winter will make you proficient with a beacon.  If you are lucky enough to live near a "Beacon Training Park;" use it!

How Do You Search?
Even though there are many different types of beacons available today, the method of searching is essentially the same. There are three phases of the beacon search:

1) Primary Search: Obtain a signal.

2) Secondary Search:
Get close to victim (within about 3 meters).

3) Pinpoint Search:
Locate exact position of victim.

The beacon search always begins by all members of the search party switching their transceivers to RECEIVE.

1) Primary Search Phase
The goal is to obtain a signal and avoid passing the victim.  As soon as a signal is received, proceed directly to the Secondary Search Phase. The primary search pattern depends on how many rescuers are available (see diagram above) and the spacing of the “search strips” depends upon individual beacons. Read your owners manual and practice with your beacon.

Conduct the Primary Search Phase quickly! LOOK and LISTEN. DO NOT focus entirely on your beacon; if you do, you may miss obvious clues like a foot sticking out of the snow. Continue the search strips until you receive a signal.

Secondary search phase

2) Secondary Search Phase
Once a signal is obtained, the next goal is to locate where the victim is buried.  When there is a single victim and multiple searchers, one person should conduct the beacon search and the others should assemble shovels and probes and visually search the debris (too many searchers following a single signal can become confusing).

The technique used to follow the flux line depends on your particular beacon...consult your manual for the exact procedure.

It is important to understand that you will not walk in a straight line to the victim; rather, you will move in an arc along the flux line. Different beacons have different methods of indicating how close you are to the buried victim; again, read your owner's manual and practice with your beacon.
Once you are about 10 feet or 3 meters from the victim, begin the Pinpoint Phase.

3) Pinpoint Search Phase
Once you get within about 10 feet of a buried victim, you must pinpoint their exact location. That means getting your beacon down next to the snow and searching at 90 degree angles. Begin by slowly sweeping your beacon back and forth in a cross pattern directly above the snow surface. Sweep left to right and then forward and backward, all the while looking for the strongest signal or lowest number (see diagram to the right). Remember that your beacon must always point in the same direction.
In most (but not all) circumstances, the buried beacon will be located directly beneath the strongest signal.
Once the beacon searcher believes they have pinpointed the victim, probe the location in a spiral fashion (see diagram in Conduct A Rescue) until you strike the victim.
Read your owner's manual carefully and practice with your beacon!!

Next Section: Conduct A Rescue »