This is the momentous warning cry meant to grab the attention and warn alpinists of an impending doom. What has actually been getting a lot of attention is a group of devices designed to prevent that impending doom. However, they may be a far cry from delivering on their scream to save our lives. Recently, the outdoor and adventure media outlets have given a lot of attention to a new class of smartphone apps that attempt to mimic traditional avalanche beacons.
The question lies as to whether we stand on the edge of a great summit in medical and wilderness resources, or on a cornice without a solid foundation. Can smartphone avalanche apps replace traditional avalanche beacons?
With advances over the last decade shifting our use of flip phones and "palm pilot" PDAs to smart phones that augment our medical coding, document our EMR encounters, and supplement our core knowledge needs with CME, it was only a matter of time when the envelope would be pushed further. Whether the user is prescribing medicine, taking a "selfie", translating a foreign language, or updating social media, the smartphone has deeply penetrated our lives and is serving to meet many needs. It would, however, need to make giant leaps of progress in order to replace the current instruments of avalanche safety, training, and functionality.
In recent years, great strides have been made in the user access to avalanche education and training. In light of the growth of back country/side country skiing and boarding, as well as the high-lining pursuits of snow machine enthusiasts, this has been a worthy cause. The smartphone and app industries have also contributed their own efforts with specific backcountry apps that provide up-to-date avalanche forecasting in addition to functional snow study tools (e.g. inclinometers). These efforts should be applauded, but a deficiency has existed in the ability of smartphones to replace other avalanche safety tools and the training that goes along with them. So, the question remains: is there an app for that?
The cost of snow tools (i.e. avalanche beacons) and their associated training courses (e.g. the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, AIARE) is often prohibitive. So prohibitive, in fact, that backcountry participants might easily find competing financial obligations to distract from acquiring traditional avalanche beacons or formalized training in search of a more affordable option. Recent developments in the smartphone world have proposed a less expensive alternative to the established and more traditional avalanche beacons operating at the 457 kHz frequencies. Smartphone devices, including both Apple and Android-based units, are capable of transmitting and receiving cellular, Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth signals. The associated development of "Avy Apps" capitalizes on these signaling methods to deliver us, our patients, and our friends to safety.
Unfortunately, it is a cry for help that is likely to go unanswered.
On the Android platform, there exists an app titled Snog which operates on Wi-Fi signal only. Here is a brief video of a shallow burial at a German ski resort that highlights the app. It would seem a promising endorsement, but one that lacks scientific scrutiny and testing.
In the iOS line-up, an additional app, iSis, works to locate avalanche victims utilizing GPS and Bluetooth functions of the Apple-based devices.
Both of these platforms and associated apps were recently highlighted in an article by Outside magazine to optimistically show great promise and deserved attention. At this point, however, the only attention deserved is to steer our friends, colleagues, and patients away from such a fool's errand and false hope of saving a buck.
These 'avy' apps attempt to replicate the functionality of a traditional avalanche beacon but they fall far short in multiple aspects of their application. Unlike the currently available digital avalanche beacons (457 kHz), which in some devices can even identify multiple victims using a directional oriented technology, these apps force the user back into decade-old functionality to utilize a grid search pattern for a single victim. This older search system has long since been replaced for the more time efficient digital devices. Before dismissing the aspects of time, it is noteworthy to remark of well-known and published statistics of survivability for avalanche victims: the consensus revealing the golden 15 minutes of burial time that exists prior to the eventual decline and likely death by CO2 asphyxiation. Time is of the essence and these new apps are a step backward in safety and technical prowess.
While downloading avalanche survey tools and forecasting applications is a noteworthy and efficacious means to the "know-before-you-go" mantra of backcountry decision making, the process of making a visit to the "App Store" does not provide any of the additional resources of training that often accompany a formalized Avalanche certification course such as the AIARE curriculum. Probing, extrication, and search techniques can be studied in a book or other media outlet, but cannot be replaced in the absence of formal training.
Additionally, other factors exist that preclude these apps from safely contributing to a successful avalanche rescue. As James Floyer, PhD correctly observed in his documented interview with Outside magazine, these smartphone devices lack the scrutiny of tested battery stability in extreme environments. Where traditional avalanche beacons have batteries that may be replaced in the field, smartphones require recharging, which is obviously not an option in the backcountry where time is of the essence for avalanche searches. The smartphone avy apps also lack cross-platform compatibility to applications within the same or alternative operating systems (i.e. Android vs. Apple device). Finally, they will not communicate with the currently established Recco system or traditional 457 kHz digital avalanche beacons.
A new consideration that had not yet been fully addressed in the avalanche beacon industry has been recently mentioned by rescue experts and is coming to the forefront of needing to be addressed in avalanche safety education. It has been found that other electronic devices may be interfering with the ability of avalanche beacons to effectively broadcast a meaningful signal to the would-be rescuer. In some cases, "frequency shift" of the beacons has occurred rendering them permanently ineffective. While search/rescue radios, heated gloves, and Go-Pro style action cameras were cited as contributing to this issue, smartphones - which can transmit via cellular radio - Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth were cited as a more common culprit. Swiss avalanche rescue fuhrer Manuel Genswein commented on this issue in his paper Interference Issues Concerning Avalanche Rescue Transceivers and made the following recommendations:
This represents a concerning issue that goes even beyond smart-phone based cellular technology falsely selling a sentiment of safety in "avy beacon" apps, but more so addresses the fact that a person who might be carrying both devices could actually be inhibiting his or her chance of a successful rescue.
To state that the smartphone-based avy beacons were "on par" with current beacon technologies is a misspoken, idealistic false hope when the current market of smartphones able to download these applications vary widely in their battery life, signal transmission, antenna reception, and are often reported to be obtunded simply by a protective case. A fully developed third party study including the various types of snow, burial depth, terrain characteristics, victim position (i.e. belly or bottom-up), altitude, temperature, and other variables would need to be entertained across multiple devices utilizing multiple applications, with multiple operating systems in order to correctly identify the true efficacy of these applications.
With evolving technologies, this is a moving target and one that will likely continue to rapidly evolve. While this is both a blessing and a curse to the development of such technology and its testing of compatibility and functionality, it does not necessitate we lower our standards of safety. The economist may declare, "there is no time but the right time to save a buck," but it seems that this day is not yet arrived. It is indeed somewhat shameful that current avy beacon technology is not more readily obtainable financially, but promoting a sense of false hope, security and safety to save a dollar is not a reasonable solution. To "offer" avy apps through smartphones as an acceptable alternative is akin to guiding our friends across a snow bridge, hiding the empty void of a crevasse that lies below them. The day is coming where there may indeed be "an app for that", but we would do well to steer our friends, family, and patients away from compromised avalanche solutions, especially if you are skiing with me.