Like thousands of other skiers and boarders out there, I’ve had ski clothing and gear with RECCO reflectors embedded in it for years. The RECCO system is marketed as an “always on” “Avalanche Rescue System.” Its a passive device that enables organized rescue teams to pinpoint a person’s location after being buried in an avalanche. You’ll find the reflectors in most high end ski clothing and gear. Clothing manufacturers tend to market the addition of RECCO as a value added safety feature.
I recently has the opportunity to train with a RECCO detector and learn more about the product, how it works and its limitations and capabilities. I became concerned that that RECCO might not provide the level of safety in the backcountry that some skiers and boarders anticipate.
For starters, RECCO reflectors will only be detected with a proprietary RECCO detector. Typically, only select professional ski patrol and mountain search and rescue outfits are equipped with these devices. So don’t count on someone in your party to be carrying one. Thus, if you are relying on RECCO to locate your buried companion, you’ll have to wait for ski patrol to arrive on scene.
Studies have demonstrated that the window for survival of a completely buried avalanche victim plummets after 10-15 minutes. After about 30 minutes its generally accepted that your likelihood of survival falls into the single digits. However, keep in mind the fact that around 25% of all avalanche victims die from trauma and not asphyxia.
Unless someone with a RECCO detector arrives on scene within the first 30 minutes of burial, its very unlikely the victim will be recovered alive.
RECCO makes money by selling reflectors to clothing and gear manufacturers. They provide the detectors to ski patrol and mountain rescue outfits for free. RECCO encourages ski resorts to advertise and promote that they are equipped with RECCO. Obviously, RECCO has worked hard to make its product relevant.
The big question about RECCO is does it save lives? There’s reportedly been only one or two live burial recoveries with RECCO. Those have been in Europe. There has not been a live recovery that I am aware of in the United States or Canada. There have been hundreds of body recoveries made with the assistance of RECCO around the world.
Skiers and boarders need to understand that RECCO is not a replacement for an avalanche beacon, shovel, probe and proper snow safety knowledge and training. Anything that can save lives is a good thing. Certainly, RECCO has a place in assisting professional rescuers in search and recovery. However, if you are relying on RECCO as your only means to either be recovered or recover someone in your party who has been buried in an avalanche, you need to give some serious consideration to your long odds of rescue.