'Game changer': New technology assists avalanche search and rescue efforts

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SALT LAKE CITY — New technology is helping search and rescue teams locate people buried in an avalanche, or lost on a mountain, faster.

Only three helicopter teams in the country use the RECCO detection system, and one of them is Utah’s Department of Public Safety.

The system is used to detect special chips on people who might be buried in an avalanche, lost in the mountains or forest, or wherever they are.

Bret Hutchings is a DPS pilot and flies its helicopter to help locate missing people or rescue those who are stuck.

No matter how often Hutchings and his team have a successful mission, they know their job is to often recover a body.

“It helps bring some closure to families,” he said. “We all love the job. We all feel like we’re contributing, we’re helping people.”

In the past year, he can use new technology on the helicopter to locate people faster.

It might even help save lives.

“This is pretty significant,” said Hutchings. “It’s kind of a game changer for us.”

He’s talking about the RECCO detection system, which hangs under the helicopter.

“If we start getting more and more people with these RECCO chips, it cuts down significantly on our search times,” said Hutchings.

That’s how a woman’s body was found buried in an avalanche in Idaho last week.

A helicopter using RECCO technology picked up on the RECCO chip she was wearing.

Chips in clothing

The chips are small and many companies are starting to put them into clothing, such as Utah-based outdoors company Kuhl.

Matt Bluher, marketing director at Kuhl, explained where the chip is placed in the clothing.

“We actually just put it into a flap of a pocket right here,” he said. “It’s a passive reflector so it never runs out of battery. You never have to charge it and you never have to turn it on.”

Once a RECCO detector hovers over a reflective RECCO chip, the detector starts to beep.

It’s a way to find people just in case and Hutchings said with the technology, search and rescue teams can cover the space of a few football fields in just a couple of minutes.

“Huge populations are getting outdoors,” Bluher said. “We want to make sure people, if they are getting lost, are going to get found.”

Utah: Second team in the country

Utah’s DPS aero team was only the second team in the country to use this helicopter device when they received it in Nov. 2018.

In the year and two months since, it’s been used several times.

“We’ve used it on three of the four fatal avalanches that we had last year, and we actually got hits with it,” Hutchings said.

The chip is not a GPS device, so it does not allow for any tracking.

A RECCO detector must be over a chip for the chip to be located.

Hutchings also said, if you have a chip, it is not a replacement for an avalanche beacon and shovel.

“It’s just another tool for us, but an important tool,” he said.


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Alex Cabrero
Alex Cabrero has been reporting for KSL-TV for nearly two decades. He has covered a variety of stories over the years from a variety of places, but he particularly enjoys sharing stories that show what's good in the world.


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