Developed for avalanche rescue, the RECCO® Rescue System is used by more than 800 rescue organizations worldwide to find buried avalanche victims. Rescue teams embrace the RECCO® System because the technology makes searching significantly faster, which saves time, and time is the enemy of the buried victim.
The two-part system consists of a RECCO® detector used by organized rescue groups and RECCO® reflectors that are integrated into outerwear, helmets, protection gear and boots from hundreds of top outdoor brands. The reflector is permanently attached, requires no training and no batteries to function. It is always “on” and ready.
RECCO® reflectors do not prevent avalanches nor do they guarantee location or survival in the event of a burial, but they enable organized rescue teams to pinpoint the person’s precise location.
The RECCO® history started on December 30, 1973 with a tragic avalanche accident in Åre, Sweden. Magnus Granhed, founder of RECCO® was riding the ski lift to the Mörvikshummeln when he heard a tremendous roar. An avalanche had ripped down the very steep slopes of Svartberget.
The result was chaos. Nobody knew how many people, or who, had been swept away in its path. “We started to search with our ski poles,” recalls Magnus. Later, probes and avalanche rescue dogs arrived, but in those days that was the only help available. Magnus remembers feeling “utterly helpless poking a ski pole into the snow” in an area the size of two soccer fields.
By the time they found the two buried skiers the search had gone on for hours and both skiers had died. Right then he decided there had to be a better way to find people.
The accident in Åre set him thinking about the possibility of an electronic locating device to locate buried people. Granhed had just graduated with a Master of Science degree, and turned to Professor Bengt Enander, Department of Electromagnetic Theory at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.
After some testing they saw that thermal imaging did not work, and transceivers were too limited so they tried to equip the skiers with a passive reflector. It took Enander’s team another two years, but the team’s work resulted in a PhD and the basis for the RECCO® System.
The problem was solved with harmonic radar. Just as is the case today, the reflector consisted of a diode that generates a harmonic when it is hit by the radar signal from the search equipment. The return signal, however, is much weaker than the search signal, and that was the great challenge for the project. The challenge became how to filter out the strong search signal so that the weak signal from the reflector would be noticeable. At first, the range in air was only 5 meters, but today the RECCO® System manages more than 200 meters.
The research team constructed and tested the first prototype in the winter of 1980-81 and RECCO® introduced its first commercial detector in 1983. It weighed all of 16 kg while today’s model weighs less than one kilogram.
The first live rescue of an avalanche victim using the RECCO® System took place in 1987 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
Despite the early success of RECCO®, it was not until the 1990s when RECCO® gained acceptance by rescuers, and the mobile telephone industry helped. By the mid to late 1990s the huge demand for cell phones resulted in smaller and cheaper components. These improvements also resulted in much smaller and lighter RECCO® detectors that were easier for rescuers to handle.
Reflectors incorporated into outerwear
Following the lead of the increasing number of ski areas that have acquired RECCO® detectors – at present more than 700 ski areas and rescue teams worldwide – more than 200 manufacturers of outerwear, ski and snowboard boots, protection gear and helmets incorporate reflectors in their products. And it is not only the search equipment that has been continuously developed and improved, having progressed through nine generations since the start; the reflectors have also gone through major developmental stages. Thirty years of work lie behind today’s small reflectors.