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Probing for Avalanche Victims


Probing offers the advantage of requiring simple equipment that can be operated by personnel with no previous training. Although the probers do not need previous training the search leader must be familiar with the technique to ensure proper execution of the probe line.




Probe Poles

Probe poles are rigid steel tubing approximately 3/4-inch in diameter and approximately 10 feet long is recommended for the primary probe pole. Longer poles are difficult to manage, especially in a high wind. Although this type of pole performs best, it is difficult to transport to the avalanche site because of its length and weight.

Each person operating in avalanche areas should carry folding sectional poles. These poles are similar to folding tent poles, but are stronger and are connected with cable instead of bungee cord. These poles should be carried on the outside of the pack for immediate access.

If no probing poles are available, initial probing attempts can be started using ski poles in one of two ways: the ski pole can be reversed, probing with the wrist strap down; or the basket can be removed so that the point is down (the preferred method), which allows the ski pole to penetrate the snow more easily.

Probe Lines

For the probing operation to be effective, probing lines must be orderly and properly spaced. To ensure systematic and orderly probing, the number of personnel per line should be limited. Twenty per line is satisfactory, while thirty is normally the upper limit. The number of probers in the line will be dictated by not only the width of the area to be probed but the number of personnel available. A string may be used to keep the probe lines aligned, but will require added time to maintain.

The probe line maintains a steady advance upslope. Advancing uphill automatically helps set the pace and permits easy probing to the full length of the probe. Probing does not come to a halt when a possible contact is made. The probe is left in contact and the line continues. A shovel crew follows up on the strike by digging down along the pole. Extra probes are carried by the shovel crew to replace those left in contact. Such a plan of operation is especially important when more than one victim is buried.

Striking a body gives a distinct feel to the probe, which is easily recognizable in soft snow but less recognizable in hard compacted snow. A common problem is encountering debris within the snow that can be mistaken for the victim. The only sure check is by digging.

Probing Techniques.

Two distinct probing methods are recognized: coarse probe and fine probe. As evidenced by their names, coarse probing implies a wider spacing of probe pole insertions with emphasis on speed. Fine probing involves close-spaced probing with emphasis on thoroughness. Coarse probing is used during initial phases of the search when live recovery is anticipated. Fine probing is the concluding measure, which almost guarantees finding the body. The coarse probe technique has a 70-percent chance of locating the victim on a given pass, while the fine probe has, essentially, a 100-percent chance of locating the body.

Coarse Probe

The coarse probe functions as follows:

  1. Probers are spaced along a line 30 inches center to center, with feet about 15 inches apart.
  2. A single probe pole insertion is made at the center of the straddle span.
  3. On command of the probe line commander, the group advances 20 inches and repeats the single probe.

Three commands are used for the complete sequence:

  • "DOWN PROBE."
  • "UP PROBE."
  • "STEP FORWARD."

By using these commands, the leader can maintain closer control of the advancing probe line. It is important that the commands be adjusted to a rhythm that enforces the maximum reasonable pace. A string may also be used along the probe line to keep the probers dressed, although this requires the use of two soldiers to control the string. Strict discipline and firm, clear commands are essential for efficient probing. The probers themselves work silently.

Fine Probe

The fine probe functions as follows:

  1. Probers are spaced the same as for the coarse probe. Each man probes in front of his left foot, then in the center of his straddled position, and finally in front of his right foot.
  2. On command, the line advances 1 foot and repeats the probing sequence. Each probe is made 10 inches from the adjacent one.

The commands for the fine probe are:

  • "LEFT PROBE."
  • "UP PROBE."
  • "CENTER PROBE."
  • "UP PROBE."
  • "RIGHT PROBE."
  • "UP PROBE."
  • "STEP FORWARD."

Good discipline and coordinated probing is even more important in fine probing than with the coarse probe. Careless or irregular probing can negate the advantages of fine probing. Use of a string to align the probers is especially important with the fine probe. The three insertions are made along the line established by the string, which is then moved ahead 1 foot.

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