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Transceiver Searching

The initial actions following an avalanche accident are primarily to ensure the scene is safe, to determine the number of people who were buried, and to do an initial visual search.

After the people who were not buried are in a safe location (a.k.a. an "island of safety"), they should change their transceivers to search mode (or possibly off). If I had a nickel for every training that stumbled due to a transceiver remaining in the transmit mode... It's important to understand that many transceivers can be set to automatically switch back to transmit mode. This can cause confusion when unburied members of the party unknowingly begin transmitting. Once the transceiver search is completed, everyone should return to transmit mode.

You'll also want to turn off any electronics that might interfere with your transceiver (including your GoPro and heated gloves). If you can't turn off your electronics, move them at least 30 cm (12 inches) from your beacon (this is the minimum distance).

The instructions on this page assume you have a modern avalanche transceiver with multiple-antennas (single-antenna transceivers do not have a direction indicator that points to the victim and therefore require different search techniques). You should periodically read the owner's manual that was supplied with your transceiver to learn its nuances. You must practice frequently.

Special techniques are required to locate multiple victims. These techniques will vary based on your training and the type of transceiver you own. Locating multiple victims is significantly more complicated. It is always preferable to use safe travel techniques that limit the number of people who are exposed to the avalanche hazard.

The basic transceiver search steps are to:

  1. traverse the slope in a zigzag-like pattern until a signal is received (the signal search),
  2. follow the directional indicator toward the victim until you are within a few meters (the coarse search), and
  3. use the distance indicator to locate the shortest distance to the victim (the fine search).

Remember that probing (aka pinpointing) is an important skill and that shoveling takes a significant amount of time.

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The goal of the "signal search" is to receive a strong signal. Period. If you switch your transceiver to search mode and receive a consistent signal, you have already completed the signal search.

  1. With your transceiver set to search, start at the point last seen (PLS) and move down the avalanche path in a zigzag pattern until you obtain a signal. Starting at the PLS can significantly reduce the size of the search area. However, misjudging the PLS can result in you ending up at the bottom of the avalanche without obtaining a signal. If this happens, you will have to repeat the search—this time while humping back up the mountain. Unfortunately, if the last person skiing down a slope is buried, the rescuers will have to search while hiking uphill.

    The distance between your zigzags is referred to as the "search strip width." Each manufacture publishes a recommended search strip. The Pieps DSP Pro recommends 60 meters, the S1+ and Zoom+, Pieps Sport, Pulse, Tracker2, and Tracker3 recommend 50 meters, the Ortovox 3+ and Tracker DTS recommend 40 meters, and the now-discontinued Freeride recommended 30 meters. In most cases, leaving no more than 100-feet (30 meters) between each zigzag is conservative, safe, and appropriate. When in doubt, make narrower search strips (i.e., about half the range stated by the manufacture). The few minutes you lose making narrower strips will not kill your partner—having to re-search the entire avalanche might. Learn more about recommended search strip widths.

    The following illustrations show the appropriate spacing for a 40-meter search strip width. Note that with a 40 meter search strip, you should get within 20 meters (half the search strip width) of the sides of the avalanche. When in doubt, go edge-to-edge.

    If the PLS is precisely identified, you can search straight down the avalanche path starting at the PLS.

    Remember, the goal of the signal search is to receive a strong signal. You should move quickly and deliberately. Locating the initial signal depends more on choosing an appropriate distance between search strips than on transceiver skill.

Signal Search Tips:

  • Keep your gloves on. Although it is tempting to take them off and drop them on the snow when operating your transceiver (which is one reason a mitten-friendly beacon is advantageous), you'll want them when probing, shoveling, and providing medical care.
  • Call out and then listen. It's possible that the victim's head is only a few inches under the snow.
  • Continue to visually search the surface of the snow. Call out to your fellow rescuers when you find a clue (e.g., skies, poles, gloves, etc.). Pick up the clue to make sure it isn't attached to the victim. Stand skis and poles upright where they were found. Leave all of your personal gear off of the slide path so it isn't mistakenly considered a clue.

Coarse Search

The "coarse search" begins after receiving a signal during the signal search. The goal of the coarse search is to get within two or three meters of the victim.

  1. Follow your transceiver's direction indicator (i.e., the arrow or lights) while keeping an eye on the distance numbers. Unfortunately, the direction indicator can point either toward the victim, or it can point 180-degrees away from the victim. The direction indicator basically aligns itself with the flux lines (shown in red, below). If the distance numbers increase, you need to turn around and follow the direction indicator in the opposite direction.

    A few transceivers can tell you to turn around if you are moving away from the victim, but it's critical that you watch the distances to gain situational awareness. It's also important to note that the displayed distance is a rough estimate. Decreasing distances are good; increasing distances aren't.

    The direction indicator will usually direct you to the victim in a curve (i.e., on the flux lines). When the direction indicator changes, slowly turn your body and the transceiver so the direction arrow, or light, is again pointed inline with the beacon.

  2. Continue to follow the direction indicator as it guides you to the victim in an arc.

    Transceivers occasional display a random "blip" indicating that you should turn. When this happens, pause for a moment while holding the transceiver very still to allow the direction indicator to stabilize. Then continue to follow the indicator.

    If the indicator repeatedly gives conflicting directions (e.g., turn left, turn right, turn left), choose one of the directions and begin walking. The indicator will resolve the conflict as you near the victim.

  3. When you are within two or three meters, you have completed the coarse search. (On most transceivers, the directional indicator will stop displaying at either two or three meters.)

Coarse Search Tips:

  • Continue to remain calm and move deliberately—slow is fast and fast is slow. This is a bad time to fall and injure yourself.
  • If the displayed distance increases or decreases when you are standing still, it's likely that a searcher is unintentionally transmitting.
  • Move relatively quickly while the distance is more than 10 meters. As the distance decreases, slow down and pause for a few beeps each time the direction indicator changes.
  • On most transceivers, the direction indicator will disappear when you are within two or three meters of the victim. If your transceiver continues to display the direction indicator when you closer than 3 meters, you should ignore it and focus only on the distances as explained in the fine search.

Fine Search

The "fine search" begins when you are within a few meters of the victim. The goal of the fine search is to get as close to the victim as possible so you can begin probing.

  1. Hold your transceiver just above the snow and slowly move it forward in the direction you were heading during the coarse search. Watch the distance numbers carefully until the numbers undeniably increase (i.e., increase more than once).

  2. Slowly move your transceiver backward to the lowest number.

  3. Slowly move your transceiver to the right (or left) until the numbers undeniably increase.

  4. Slowly move your transceiver in the opposite direction as the distances decrease and then undeniably increase.

  5. Slowly move back to the lowest number. This is the point where you will begin probing. Mark this point clearly in the snow.

Fine Search Tips:

  • Only one rescuer is needed for the fine search. Additional rescuers should begin assembling their probes and shovels. If there are multiple victims, additional rescuers should begin a multiple burial search.
  • If you haven't already, get out of your skis or snowshoes. You need to be nimble and close to the snow surface.
  • During the fine search, it is important that the transceiver always points in the same direction (i.e., do not rotate your transceiver as you move forward/backward and left/right).
  • It is helpful if you get on your knees and keep the transceiver very close (e.g., a few inches) above the snow. If you inadvertently raise or lower the transceiver, the distance to the victim will change.
  • You may find it helpful to "mark" the snow when the distances "undeniably increase." You'll then end up with a "box" drawn in the snow.
  • Novices typically move too quickly during the fine search and then waste a lot of time repeating the forward/backward, left/right bracketing. If you do these steps slowly, the bracketing can be done once. The entire fine search should take less than 60 seconds.
  • If your transceiver has fewer than three-antennas, you may find more than one location on the snow surface that displays a low distance reading. These are spikes. If this occurs, simply do the fine search until you find a low reading and begin probing at that location.

Transceiver Search Summary