To start, always use the acronym BE SAFER as your guide to responding to wilderness emergencies. BE SAFER is discussed in detail in this article.
This acronym can be applied to avalanche situation too, however, the order and priorities are slightly different in an avalanche burial compared to other emergencies. Remember, a systematic approach will help you navigate the inherit chaos of an emergency. Immediately after an avalanche it may be hard to think clearly, especially when it’s your loved one or close friend that is somewhere buried under the snow and every second is a second closer to their death. So here’s the BE SAFER acronym tailored to snow safety and avalanche rescue.
B - Be Prepared
First is B & E. The “B” in BE SAFER stands for “Be Prepared”. Much of this should be done before you even depart on your snow adventure. This includes having the right training and knowledge, as well as the right gear. In addition to the 11 essentials, be sure you have your beacon, shovel, probe, and other snow gear. If you haven’t already, take an avalanche course.
“E” stands for “Evaluate Risk”. Before each outing, even a short one, evaluate the risk that may be present from the environment, the terrain, and the activity.
Plan for these appropriately. Environmental Risks may include foul weather like a snow storm or cold winter temperature. Terrain Risks could include falling ice or rock, avalanches, steep slopes, or the possibility of tree wells. This is when you should look up the lastest avalanche advisories and bulletins. Here’s our Worldwide Avalanche Advisory Database.
And finally, evaluate the activity risk. For backcountry snow sports, this would include potential trauma from a ski accident, hypothermia, frostbite, snow blindness, and other cold related issues. Bring what you need to handle these kind of emergencies. You can read more about how to customize a wilderness first aid kit here.
S - Safety
As always, first is safety. Your safety and the safety of others is the priority. We do not want to create more casualties. When an avalanche occurs, move yourself to safe location if possible. After establishing your own safety, try to locate the victim caught in the avalanche and note where they were last seen on the surface. If you can not see them, look for any surface clues, like a glove or a ski pole sticking out of the snow. Get your gear ready, turn your beacon to search mode. Once the avalanche has ceased, be sure to evaluate for any other dangers like falling ice and rock or another avalanche. Now we are ready for to begin the rescue process.
This article will not go into detail about how to use and search with a transceiver and probe. It will only provide a general review. For more information, see this resource. The basics of beacon searching are: 1.) Find the Signal 2.) Coarse Search 3.) Fine Search 4.) Probe and 5.) Dig.
If others are with you, be sure they also turn their beacons to receive. Begin by skiing or moving in the direction where the victim was last seen, and search for the signal from their beacon. From their last seen point, move down hill in a zigzag pattern.
Once you locate the signal, begin your coarse search. Follow the signal until you are within about 3 meters, or the lowest reading on the transceiver as there is a possibility that the victim is buried several meters below the surface. Now you know you are close, this is when you do a fine search. Bracket your readings along two axes to locate the closest reading signal. Begin probing.
At your closest distance point, begin probing. Probe in concentric circles around this point with each probe placement being 25 centimeters apart. When you locate the victim with your probe, leave it there as a reference.
Now it’s time to start shoveling. And this is where technique makes a huge difference. Maybe even the difference between life and death. Here’s how to do it correctly:
Upon reaching the buried avalanche victim, locate and free the head first. This is when you should now consider first aid.
F - First Aid
Next is to perform immediate first aid treatments on the victim. Do not worry at this moment about freeing the rest of the body, if others are with you they can start that process. Your job is to rapidly find and fix serious life threats.
The airway, breathing, and circulation (commonly referred to as the ABC’s) are essential for sustaining life. Any problem directly affecting the ABC’s is considered an immediate threat to life and must be corrected. For buried avalanche victims, the most typical and immediate threat is to the airway (the mouth, throat, and lungs) and breathing. Snow can fill the mouth and the cement like snow around the body can make it difficult for the chest to expand enough to breathe.
So look for snow in the mouth, begin clearing snow from around the chest, and carefully remove any restricting gear around the neck. Open the airway if you can. As you dig out the rest of the body, look for any signs of major bleeding. If you do find bleeding, stop it immediately with direct pressure.
Ideally, you should already know how to care for the ABC’s. This is where the skills and knowledge from a wilderness first aid class are invaluable. It really can save a life. Again, consider a hands on training class or at the very least, our online Outdoor Safety course.
After the ABC’s are treated, try not to move the victim too much if you think there is a chance of a neck injury. Keep them warm and protected from the environment. In severe trauma emergencies, a drop in body temperature can accelerate a dangerous and deadly condition known as shock. If possible place some sort of insulation between the victim and the ground, and over the victim. Learn more about keeping a victim warm here: 4 Ways the Body Loses Heat in the Wilderness
Other not as threatening problems, like a wrist fracture, can be addressed later.
After locating the victim and doing first aid, activate help. This may seem a bit backwards. But the time it may take to call for help or go get help is time lost against your friend’s life under the snow. You are their best chance. This is why it’s suggested to activate help after, but if you have a larger group, have someone get help while the others begin the search.
After treating all life threats to the best of your ability, start to self evacuate, or wait for outside rescue. This all depends on the situation like if help is on the way, the condition the victim is in, how far away from shelter you are, the weather, and so on.
If help was successfully activated, then you will probably receive instruction from them on what to do, or you will know their estimated time of reaching you. Sometimes, you may have to wait many hours for outside help to arrive. While you are waiting for rescue, there things you can do to be proactive. Do your best to keep the victim (and yourself) warm and insulated from the ground and the outside environment. Just a simple space blanket laid over the victim will not cut it. You may need to improvise insulation out of rope, a tarp, extra jackets, etc. This is also a great time to do the other not so urgent medical treatments, like splinting a broken wrist. Learn how to splint broken bones in this free online mini-course: Wilderness Splints.
However, sometimes you may decide to get out of there on your own. Self evacuation and self rescue is the best option only if it can be done so safely and without causing further harm. If this is the case, then begin to self evacuate. Be aware that the situation can change, and may require outside help.
If you were not able to activate help, or if the situation is too dangerous, you might need to make the difficult decision to leave the victim to go get help. This may be especially true if you are with one other person, and it is that person who is hurt. Before leaving, make sure the patient is in a safe location with food and water. Attempt to keep them warm and isolated from the environment.
If they are semi conscious or unconscious, put them in recovery position before you leave, even if there is a potential spine or neck injury. Try to be gentle on the neck! The recovery position helps maintain a good passageway for air to move in and out of the lungs. This is very important.
To place a patient in recovery position, lay the patient onto their side with the ground arm extended. The other arm should be positioned so that the patient’s cheek rests on the back of the hand. This is to keep the head in position. The head should be positioned so that it's tilted slightly back to ensure an open airway. Finally, the right leg should be bent to prevent the patient from rolling forward onto their face. The recovery position is meant to maintain an open airway and prevent inhalation of stomach contents.
As you may have noticed by now, BE SAFER is not a tight-edged, straight-forward, easy process. Emergencies are complex and unpredictable. A generic checklist cannot be applied to an emergency with a one size fits all mentality, especially in the wilderness. However, BE SAFER should be used as a guide to navigate wilderness emergencies if you have no medical or rescue training. Each of its components must be considered. It can not replace hands on medical training.
Taking a hands on avalanche training course may help you avoid an avalanche rescue situation completely. Stay safe