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Researchers Simulate Avalanches, Bury Study Participants To Test Avalanche Airbags

Mar 11, 2019, 5:54 PM | Updated: 6:49 pm

PARK CITY, Utah — Researchers at the University of Utah, who are also back-country skiers, are testing a piece of safety gear to see if it can save lives.

They’ve simulated avalanches to find out how well a victim can breathe after being buried with an airbag.

The team of researchers and emergency physicians wanted to find out if a Black Diamond Jet Force avalanche airbag can help a person survive longer once he’s been buried in an avalanche.

Specifically, they wanted to find out if the air pocket that it creates enables the avalanche victim to breathe while buried in snow.

“Anyone who is in the back-country is always looking for ways to stay safe,“ said Dr. Scott McIntosh, the principal researcher, and university emergency physician.

Four people have died in back-country avalanches in Utah this winter season.

Over the past few days, they’ve simulated 12 avalanche burials at Utah Olympic Park in Park City.

While the avalanche “victims” were buried for an hour, they monitored their vital signs.

The avalanche airbag inflates when the user pulls the ripcord. It is designed to float the skier near the top of the avalanche, and that alone may save the person.

Unlike other airbags, the Black Diamond Jet Force deflates after three minutes. The airbag creates a 200 L pocket of air, that enables the avalanche victim to stay alive.

“That deflation is to create an air pocket so that someone could survive longer,“ said McIntosh.

They can also delay asphyxia, which kills 75% of avalanche victims in those not killed by the pounding. That was a topic of research previously for McIntosh.

After a half hour, the buried participant is still doing fine.

A person buried by an avalanche typically has about 15 minutes to survive. That’s why gear that the skiers and snowmobilers have on them is critical.

“It’s really the people who are directly around them that can dig them out, and hopefully they’re still alive at that point,“ set McIntosh.

Preliminary results from their 12 tests are good. Eleven of the 12 participants were able to stay buried in the snow for an hour. Only one participant had to come out of the snow about 10 minutes early.

“It was dark and cold and tight,“ said Colin Little, a university of Utah wilderness medicine fellow who volunteered to be buried in the avalanche debris.

When the researcher was first buried, he could feel the weight of the snow compressing his chest. After three minutes, when the airbag deflated, he was able to use that air space to breathe.

“It worked pretty well, actually,” he said.

The avalanche airbag created a pocket of air behind his head.

“I can’t see it because I’m sort of faced down in the the snow,” Little said. “But, I can pull my head back enough that I can have some movement and actually get my face up in the pocket a little bit to exchange the air.“

He said he was panicky at first, until he got his breathing under control.

“You start to feel a little bit more comfortable, and you feel like you can breathe. It gives you that time for your partners to come in and actually dig you out,“ said Little.

Buying that extra time is really the key to survival.

His vital signs stayed stable throughout the hour.

“That air pocket is potentially supporting people’s normal respiratory and cardiovascular health, and allowing people to survive for that hour and not asphyxiate,“ said Dr. McIntosh. “The the deflation and the creation of that air pocket… We think that it works.“

In the months ahead they will crunch their data and come up with a report.

Before this study, Dr. McIntosh said he was not convinced how well the avalanche airbag would work. He now uses one when he skis in the back-country after buying one for the study.

“I think that these airbags do allow an extra element of safety which is very comforting in the back-country,“ he said.

A Black Diamond Jet Force avalanche airbag is a $1000 piece of equipment. It can be deployed four times before it has to be recharged.

McIntosh said, anybody who buys that should already own a shovel, a beacon, and a probe: the essentials for safe travel in the back country.

These test results are something to consider if you regularly ski or snowmobile in avalanche terrain.

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Researchers Simulate Avalanches, Bury Study Participants To Test Avalanche Airbags