by Nick D’Alessio, with Jeremy Allyn
A good avalanche beacon check is one of the most important procedures we need to go through before enjoying a day in the snow-covered mountains. An incomplete check of your group’s beacons can result in your inability to perform a rescue, or be rescued, as well as potentially put others in harms way.
Over the years, a variety of beacon check procedures have been adopted by the snow and avalanche community. As technology has advanced, so has the beacon check. Our understanding of electronic interference with respect to avalanche beacons has driven many of the industry’s current practices, as well as a shift to what can best be described as the “facilitating leader” approach to the beacon check.
Organizations such as the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) and the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) have long been advocates of a “leader driven” beacon check. At AAS we have found this approach to work best as well. Someone needs to take charge — it doesn’t need to be the most experienced person, your instructor, or guide — but one person should lead. Simply put, things like the beacon check work best if run by a leader.
One challenge to the system continues to be how to account for the myriad display messages and errors that are common on beacons these days; as well as how to manage the high probability of electronic interference that can, at best, mess up a beacon check, or, at worst, render a beacon completely inoperable.
There are a lot of acronyms in outdoor education and we are hesitant to add another. However, I had an epiphany one summer morning and came up with the idea for the “D’BEST” beacon check. This spinoff accounts for your beacon’s display and the potential electronic interference at the beginning of the procedure — the point in the check when it’s most relevant.
For the 2015–2016 season, the Alaska Avalanche School has fully adopted D’BEST into our course curriculum and course flow. The feedback and follow through from our students has been tremendous. I see a night and day difference from past years. We’ve had students approach us in parking lots, on the skin track, and even overheard them in the bar enthusiastically singing the praises of D’BEST. Who knows if it’s the best? The point is folks are remembering it, doing it the same every time, and it accounts for all the key components of a proper beacon check. Here is a summary as it is written on our student field cards:
D.’ B.E.S.T. Beacon Check
Display “Turn beacons on. Check battery and Display for errors.”
Battery “Battery strength?”
Electronics “Electronics 50cm away? Airplane mode?”
Search “Everyone to Search.” When silent, leader checks group.
Transmit “Transmit and stow.” Leader checks group.
Last person watches leader go to transmit
D — Display:
Everyone turns on the their beacon and their start up display is noted. If there is a beacon function error it should be addressed. Familiarity with your particular beacon and it’s user manual is recommended. Tip: Be mindful. Display errors can and do occur, even in new beacons.
B — Battery:
Once beacons power up and go through their self check, everyone notes their battery strength and audibly states it to their group — “I’ve got 90%. I’ve got 67%, etc.” Again, familiarity with your particular beacon’s recommendation for battery strength/replacement is recommended. Tip: Bring extra batteries. No lithium or rechargeables.
E — Electronics:
Group members state where their electronics are relative to their beacon. Different manufacturers have different recommendations with respect to the distance between electronics and beacons. The key point is that anything that emits a signal is a potential source of interference — Bluetooth, wireless devices, radios, cell phones, etc. Phones should be turned to airplane mode. Additionally, there is evidence that metal, magnets, heated gloves and certain headlamps can interfere with beacon function. Tip: We use 50cm (20 inches) apart as a rule of thumb. Be conservative. Turning things off is best.
S — Search:
Standing a few arm lengths apart, all group members turn their beacons to search. There will be a period of beacons beeping, then silence. The leader switches to transmit and checks each group member’s search function. Tip: Leader starts a meter or so away and “walks in” to isolate their partner’s signal. Audibly count down distance readings.
T — Transmit:
All group members turn beacons to transmit and stow them properly. The leader turns to search and checks that each group member is transmiting, audibly counting down distance readings. Tip: This is a good opportunity to double check where and how your partners are stowing their beacon. Is it zippered in a dedicated pants pocket or a chest harness under layers? Is it clipped in with a lanyard?
Leader to Transmit:
Once all group members are confirmed to be transmitting, the leader turns his/her beacon to transmit and stows it properly. Tip: Leader visually and audibly confirms with the last group member….You see? I’m in transmit.”
We encourage everyone to give D’BEST a try. Let us know what you think. Have a fun and safe winter and see you out there!
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Alaska Avalanche School, 2016