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Avalanche Center Warns Cell Phone Apps Don’t Replace Beacons

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Play safe in the backcountry; photo BLM

Backcountry skiers and boarders who use cell phone apps as a cheap alternative to avalanche transceivers are asking for trouble.

That was the message of a press release sent out by experts at the Canadian Avalanche Center today.

Avalanche transceivers are electronic devices used by backcountry skiers, snowmobilers and others to find companions in the event of an avalanche burial.

The center’s warning explained that, while apps claim to turn smartphones into impromptu avalanche locator beacons, the systems are not as effective as the real thing.

The release mentions three European-made apps — iSis Intelligent (Mountain) Rescue System, Snøg Avalanche Buddy and SnoWhere — that present themselves as economical alternatives to avalanche transceivers.

According to the release, the CAC examined and found a number of issues with the technology, including compatibility and frequency range.

All avalanche transceivers conform to an international standard of 457 kHz, meaning all transceivers can be used to search and find other transceivers.

“Not only are these new apps incapable of connecting with other avalanche transceivers, they are also incompatible between themselves, so one type of app can’t find another,” explains CAC Executive Director Gilles Valade.

The 457 kHz standard was chosen because it transmits very well through dense snow, is not deflected by objects such as trees and rocks, and is accurate.

“None of the various communication methods used by these apps come close to that standard,” adds Valade. “WiFi and Bluetooth signals are significantly weakened when passing through snow and easily deflected by the solid objects we expect to see in avalanche debris. And the accuracy of a GPS signal is nowhere near the precision required for finding an avalanche victim.”

Other critical issues include battery life, robustness, reliability and interference.

“We are warning all backcountry users to not use any of these apps in place of an
avalanche transceiver,” Valade said. —Sean McCoy

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