Pascal Haegeli
Research report prepared for WorkSafeBC, Avisualanche Consulting, Vancouver BC, p. 77
Publication year: 2012

Executive summary

Since the introduction of avalanche balloon packs, many studies have examined their effectiveness in avalanche involvements. However, the operational use of avalanche balloon packs has consequences that reach far beyond the management of avalanche involvements. Prior to the present study, these indirect consequences of the operational use of avalanche balloon packs had not been examined systematically. The present study aims to close this significant knowledge gap by assembling a comprehensive overview of the experiences and concerns regarding the operational use of avalanche balloon packs within the professional Canadian avalanche community. The goal of this study is to provide a comprehensive inventory of the possible issues arising from their use, assess the level of concern of current non-users about these issues and compare the levels of concern with the experience of current users of avalanche balloon packs.

This study used a mixed method approach with two distinct research phases. The first exploratory phase of the research developed a comprehensive overview of the existing concerns about the operational use of avalanche balloon packs. The basis of the overview was 24 open-ended personal interviews with key informants representing all segments of the Canadian professional avalanche community. These interviews revealed sixteen possible indirect issues that fall into four main categories: safety aspects; ergonomic concerns; practicality challenges; and other concerns. In the second phase of this research, a detailed online survey was developed to quantitatively examine the level of concern of the identified issues with a broader participation of the avalanche community. The survey was designed to dynamically select questions based on the characteristics of participants to allow avalanche professionals to adequately describe their opinions and experiences. Survey questions differed between individual avalanche professionals and operators of avalanche safety operations as well as between participants who regularly use avalanche balloon packs at their workplace and participants who do not use avalanche balloon packs. One hundred and fifty individual avalanche professionals and 90 operators completed the survey during the summer of 2011. For the analysis, survey participants were categorized into five industry segments: guiding; control work; other field programs; avalanche training; and search and rescue.

Since 2000, the use of avalanche balloon packs among Canadian avalanche professionals has grown considerably and, as shown in this study, the adoption rate is increasing. At the time of the data collection, 23% of the individual avalanche professionals participating in this study reported being regularly or always using avalanche balloon packs. In addition, 30% reported that while they believe that avalanche balloon packs offer considerable benefits for their personal safety at their workplace, they have not yet made the step to regularly use them. Survey participants who do not regularly use avalanche balloon packs were most concerned about the cost of acquiring them and their possible ergonomic impacts, primarily due to the additional weight. The practicality of avalanche balloon packs in the workplace was another significant concern. However, the type and level of the practicality concerns varied considerably among industry segments. Concern levels were consistently higher within the guiding community—particularly heli-ski guides and operators. Concerns about the possible impact of avalanche balloon packs on the safety of other operational aspects (e.g., helicopter safety) were generally less of a concern. However, similar to the practicality concerns, the ratings varied significantly among industry segments and the guiding community generally expressed higher levels of concern. In both the practicality and safety considerations, the higher levels of concern reported by the guiding community are most likely related to the fact that this industry segment not only deals with the personal use of avalanche balloon packs by professionals, but needs to accommodate and supervise the use of avalanche balloon packs by their guests, which adds considerable additional operational complexity.

Survey participants who regularly use avalanche balloon packs at their workplace were significantly less concerned about their possible operational impacts and consistently rated their benefits more favourably. However, it is beyond the scope of the present study to conclusively determine whether the adopters of avalanche balloon packs simply have operational conditions more favourable for their adoption or whether the current non-adopters typically overrate the level of concern of the related impacts.

The information collected in this study provides a comprehensive inventory of the impacts associated with the operational use of avalanche balloon packs within the various segments of the professional Canadian avalanche community. The results reveal an industry that is highly diverse with a wide range of different operational needs and challenges. The risk management of avalanche safety operations is a multifaceted challenge that involves much more than just avalanche involvements. While the study examined the general level of concern of non-users about these individual issues and compared them with the experience of users of avalanche balloon packs within the same industry segment, the factors that influence the pros and cons of avalanche balloon packs for individual avalanche safety operations depend on their specific circumstances. As a consequence, the study did not attempt to make quantitative statements about the net benefit of avalanche balloon packs or make recommendations about their operational use in the different industry segments.

The recent increase in the use of avalanche balloon packs among Canadian backcountry recreationists and avalanche professionals has resulted in additional outdoor gear companies entering the avalanche balloon pack market and investing considerably into research and development. We believe that the current development efforts and the additional push in innovation from the increased competition among manufacturers will likely soon be able to address some of the most pressing concerns regarding cost and ergonomic issues. As these primary issues are addressed adequately, the use of avalanche balloon packs within the Canadian avalanche community will naturally increase. Finding meaningful solutions to some of the practicality and safety concerns will likely require more significant changes to existing operating procedures.

As avalanche balloon packs are increasingly adopted by Canadian avalanche professionals and safety operations, it is crucial to continuously monitor the performance of avalanche balloon packs in emergency situations as well as in any other incidents that might be affected by their use (e.g., frequency and reason of WorkSafeBC claims, number of avalanche incidents with staff or guest involvements, helicopter incidents). Future analyses building on the existing research on avalanche incidents involving avalanche balloon packs (e.g., Haegeli, 2012a) will further improve our understanding of the capabilities and limitations of avalanche balloon packs in emergency situations. Equally important will be studies that examine the operational impacts (e.g., risk compensation behaviour of staff and/or guests, effect on situation awareness, ergonomic impacts) as they will offer important insight as to whether the use of avalanche balloon packs results in a net benefit for the safety of avalanche workers.

Contact Pascal Haegeli for a copy of this report.

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