The crew with Two Bear Air search and rescue has added a rarefied new tool to its quiver of cutting-edge technology that will aid in the hundreds of helicopter rescue missions it performs each year.
The critical helicopter search-and-rescue system is called the RECCO SAR detector, and its recent deployment here marks the device’s debut in the western hemisphere.
RECCO SAR is based on the same technology as the company’s global avalanche rescue system, which is well known within skiing and snowboarding circles. Made for use in ski resorts and the backcountry, RECCO’s avalanche rescue system has a simple, two-part design. RECCO-equipped clothing and gear includes integrated reflectors, so in the event a skier or snowboarder becomes trapped in avalanche debris or a tree well, rescue personnel use a handheld detector to send out a directional radar signal.
However, RECCO has been working on a more versatile, year-round system designed to make helicopter-based search and rescue, like the type of missions Two Bear performs, faster and more efficient.
RECCO’s helicopter-carried detector hangs on a long line beneath the helicopter to provide a wider search signal compared to RECCO’s handheld detector, used primarily for avalanche and crevasse rescue. With the SAR detector, a greater range can quickly scan 656-feet-wide swaths of mountain, forest and water for missing persons. RECCO says that the technology can search an area of a half-square mile in three to four minutes when flying at speeds of 70 mph.
Assuming the victim is wearing a piece of RECCO-equipped clothing, a technology increasingly common in outdoor wear like ski jackets, packs and helmets, he or she can be located more quickly and easily with this system than with traditional search and rescue methods.
According to Jim Pierce, Two Bear’s chief helicopter pilot, while no single piece of search-and-rescue equipment is an end-all item, “we always want to have every tool available to help us save a life.”
Last year, when a well-known local physician, Dr. Jon Torgerson, went missing in the backcountry area near Big Mountain, search-and-rescue teams believed he was wearing a RECCO-equipped garment. After Torgerson’s body was recovered nearly three months after his disappearance, that belief turned out to be false.
Still, Pierce said education and awareness about RECCO-equipped gear and garments is critical for search-and-rescue personnel as they determine the best tools to use during a mission.
“Please take a moment and see if you, your friends or your loved ones have [RECCO technology] in any of their items,” he said. “It could be the difference that saves their life.”
Pierce said the Swedish-based RECCO contacted Two Bear about testing the equipment, the first time it’s been deployed in North or South America.
Initially skeptical about the technology, Pierce said the testing has been flawlessly executed.
“We’ve been testing it for three days and it works,” Pierce said. “I’m excited about this technology. It’s not a substitution for other safety devices like avalanche beacons, but it is another tool that can help.”
Aided by Recco Advanced Rescue Technology representative Howie Howlett, Two Bear crews have been deploying the 170-pound RECCO SAR device in a variety of scenarios in nearby backcountry areas, all of which have proven effective. In the coming weeks as the snowpack builds, Two Bear will test the device in burial scenarios.
“They have had great success in Europe with victims 30 feet down in crevasses covered in snow,” Pierce said.
The technology comes at a critical time when Two Bear’s search and rescue responses are rising steadily in the region — so far in 2018 there have been 149 calls for service — and the efficiency of its technology helps Two Bear keep pace as one of the best outfits in the country.
That’s due in large part to the addition of its Bell 429 helicopter five years ago, a philanthropic contribution to the community by Mike Goguen, who supports all costs of the operation, with zero cost to taxpayers.
It’s not uncommon for Two Bear to fly 200-plus nautical miles to get to a rescue, at an altitude that ranges from 2,000 feet MSL (mean sea level) up to 13,000 feet, with a coverage area of approximately 60,000 square miles.
Two Bear Air works in close partnership with the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and Kalispell Regional Medical Center’s ALERT helicopter, adding to the rich history of rural aviation support across the rugged and vast landscape near Glacier National Park. For more information, visit www.TwoBearAir.org.
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