There’s No App For That

This is a topic all of us know from many late-night discussions over two beers in a smoky ski resort bar. Smartphones can do pretty much everything short of delivering babies, so why shouldn’t these modern communication devices be able to provide a handy, practical and – most importantly – cheap avalanche search mechanism? This all sounds like a big conspiracy run by these influential transceiver manufacturers. They are keeping development down and the prices up so they can maintain their luxurious lifestyle and laugh at the scared mountaineering masses. I heard they are just rolling in cash. Maybe the government is involved?

Of course we all know the endless and sobering requirements an avalanche transceiver has to fulfill in order to actually save lives in the event of an avalanche burial. Working in all (that spells a-l-l) conditions, regardless of temperature, elevation, humidity and physical impact. Maintaining compatibility over many years. Using as little resources as possible.

phonevsbeacon

Notice the difference?

Every once in a while, usually when a public person gets killed in an avalanche or at the start of a winter season, news about a smartphone app that can replace (or complement) an avalanche transceiver flood the social networks. The Canadian Avalanche Centre recently published a press release, warning freeriders and ski mountaineers of such smartphone apps. They singled out three European companies who market their apps as either a cheap alternative or an addition to a standard beacon.

„Not only are these new (Note: They are actually not that new) apps incapable of connecting with other avalanche transceivers, they are also incompatible between themselves, so one type of app can’t find another“ and „We are warning all backcountry users to not use any of these apps in place of an avalanche transceiver.“ (CAC Executive Director Gilles Valade)

They backed their warning with a discussion paper that details range issues, compatibility, battery life, robustness, reliability, interference and – very important in my opinion – marketing and legal and ethical issues. Take your time and read this paper in its entirety (link below), it will provide you with an insight as to why smartphone apps are in no way ready to be used as a transceiver replacement.

I agree that contemplating how to improve avalanche safety by making it economically more accessible and more user friendly will advance modern transceiver development (as it has done in the last decade), but what pisses me off about these three apps in particular is how irresponsibly the companies behind those apps are marketing their product.
Avalanche transceivers, their development and their requirements are a fairly serious field of science. I work for one of the biggest producers of avalanche transceivers, and even though I have no technical background I have learned – over the years – the complex technology involved to make a beacon work all the time, in all conditions. (And not ‚60% of the time, it works every time‘. Here’s your Anchorman reference.)

And here I am confronted with an FAQ section that says „Is Snøg Avalanche Buddy a certified life safer (sic!) or beacon? – No! Snøg Avalanche Buddy has not been subjected to TÜV tests or ESTI test. But, a smartphone is CE certified, and both ETSI and TÜV use CE norms in their tests as well“ (Snøg). That’s like buying a car where you don’t know if the brakes work, but hey, at least you’ll sit comfortably. And a questionable How-to-Video that shamelessly shows burial scenes stolen from other videos (iSis). I have also yet to find a proper imprint or quotable studies on their websites.

Here’s what I am asking from these companies. Please don’t do that. We appreciate that you spend your time thinking of how to improve avalanche safety on the mountains, but please do not communicate a false sense of security. Because that is what you do to people who just superficially browse your website or drop by your Facebook pages.

Press release Canadian Avalanche Centre http://www.avalanche.ca/cac/avalanche-search-apps-press-release
Discussion Paper http://www.avalanche.ca/cac/avalanche-search-apps-review (Read this!)

I have linked the websites of these companies, so you can look at their claims yourself.
Snøg http://www.avalanchebuddy.com/
iSis http://www.isis-application.com/en/
SnoWhere http://charcoalfrost.com/

Disclaimer
I work for Pieps. This text and my opinion is not related to my position at Pieps and does not reflect the opinion of anyone at Pieps or, for that matter, anyone else.

About me
Stephan Skrobar is a fully certified ski instructor and ski guide and head of the freeride center “Die Bergstation”. He is a member of the Fischer Freeski Team, examines instructors, runs a communication agency and loves punkrock. Stephan is the team manager of the Pieps Freeride Team.

 

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