How Can RECCO Save Your Life?

RECCO is a type of avalanche rescue technology, originally from Sweden, used by professional rescuers to locate buried avalanche victims. The idea behind RECCO was born after an avalanche accident in Sweden in 1973. Magnus Granhed, its future founder, was one of the rescuers involved in the accident response. He felt limited with the current technology and techniques at their disposal when they were unable to rescue the buried skiers. The avalanche rescue community needed something that could more effectively locate avalanche victims and, since nothing existed, Granhed took the innovation into his own hands with RECCO.

Over the next four and a half decades, there came several iterations of the RECCO detectors that are used today. From the first prototype phase in the late 1970s, to the first commercially available and clothing integrated reflectors in the ‘80s, to handheld tech and helicopter-mounted search capabilities in the 21st Century, RECCO technology has evolved into a valuable asset in search and rescue operations. 

How does it work?

RECCO detectors send out directional radar signals, which are then reflected back to the detector after hitting a special RECCO reflector. The return of the reflected signal cues the operator to close in on where the reflected signal is coming from. These reflectors are made to only be picked up by the detecting instruments, allowing them to be distinguished from other buried debris or objects that aren’t avalanche victims. 

It is important not to confuse a RECCO detector with an avalanche transceiver, or any other frequency device on the market. While the applications and technology are similar, transceivers and RECCO detectors are still very different tools, and should be treated as such. An avalanche transceiver will not locate a RECCO reflector. However, the more modern handheld RECCO detectors will pick up 457 kHz signals (the universal avalanche transceiver frequency) in addition to the normal operative frequencies, which adds another layer of search capabilities for the rescuer.

There are two varieties of RECCO detectors that you may see in use: a handheld device that is operated by a rescuer on the ground, and a larger, helicopter-carried detector for larger-scale search areas. These both work the same way, just on different scales.

Who uses RECCO?

RECCO systems were developed to be used by professional rescuers, primarily search and rescue and ski patrol teams. In fact, it’s impossible to get your hands on these systems unless you are a professional. In a way, anyone wearing a RECCO reflector is a user of the technology, however since the reflectors are passive it is not quite a fair comparison. 

Where we can find it?

We are most likely to encounter RECCO technology in clothing and other gear with sewn in RECCO reflectors. Seeing reflectors in outerwear is becoming more commonplace, although they been found in clothing and ski boots since the 1980s. EMS’s Nor’Easter Ski Jackets (men’s/women’s) and Squall Shell Pants (men’s/women’s) are the latest to include a built-in RECCO reflector. 

There are a couple of search and rescue organizations around New England that have handheld detectors, including Stowe Mountain Rescue, White Mountain National Forest, as well as the Lake Placid Forest Rangers. Mont Tremblant in Quebec also has RECCO search capabilities, but any other detectors in the US are found to the west of the Mississippi. For a full list and map of organizations with RECCO detectors around the world, go here.

Courtesy: RECCO

What can’t it do?

Being a two-part system, the RECCO detectors and reflectors are designed to work together, so without a RECCO reflector, you’ll be nearly impossible to find with the technology. While you will be harder to find, rescuers have noted instances where they have been able to pick up avalanche transceivers, cell phones, and other electronics, albeit with a much weaker signal. 

Whether or not a victim has RECCO reflectors, a detector still has a limits to the range that it can pick up a returning signal. The handheld detectors can pick up reflectors up to 120 meters away above ground, and can be limited to 10 meters through packed snow (Mount Washington averages 7 meters in a whole year), so that is less of a limitation around New England. Helicopter systems have a larger search area; RECCO touts the ability to search one square kilometer in six minutes.

And again, RECCO isn’t a viable solution for most backcountry skiers. It’s much more feasible for everyone in a backcountry group to carry a traditional avalanche transceiver than is it a handheld RECCO receiver. But in-bounds, where carrying an expensive transceiver isn’t typical, cheap RECCO reflectors embedded into jackets, pants, ski boots, helmets and more, can make skiers easy to find in the event of an avalanche.

Courtesy: RECCO

Bottom line.

So what do we know about RECCO? When it’s available, it can be a tremendous asset for rescuers to locate buried avalanche victims, although it cannot be counted on to save lives where detectors are sparse, and is certainly not a replacement for existing best practices in avalanche safety. RECCO is a supplement to current rescue techniques including transceiver searches, probe lines, and trained dog teams, and has been shown to improve victim location times. 

The avalanche community is still experiencing a lot of growth in the rescue tools available to professionals, and as RECCO technology improves with everything else hopefully we may see a shift from what is considered to be a body recovery tool to even more of a live rescue asset. 

It is worth researching where RECCO systems are in use, and maybe more importantly where they are unavailable, before traveling into a certain area. Additionally, with the infusion of clothing and gear with integrated RECCO reflectors into the larger outdoor market we have unprecedented access to cheap and simple tools that may increase our chances of being found if buried under snow.