ISSW 2012: BCA’s Steve Christie Reveals U.S. Avalanche Airbag Statistics

Posted on October 5th, 2012 by | 2 Comments

BCA’s sales and marketing team recently returned from the 2012 ISSW (International Snow Science Workshop), held in Anchorage, AK. This is the second in series of blogs on the presentations we liked best.

One of our favorite talks was the one by BCA’s own Steve Christie. Go figure! Steve’s talk preceded the one on “avalanche balloon packs” by Canadian Ph. D. Pascal Haegeli, which we summarized in our previous ISSW blog. Haegeli’s presentation summarized Canadian airbag statistics, with the conclusion that avalanche airbag users are twice as likely to survive a “critical” burial than non-airbag users. 

Since Haegeli’s stats are limited to Canada–and stats collected previous to that have come only from Europe–BCA has decided to track and record statistics on all avalanche airbag deployments in the US. Here are some of the key findings Steve presented at ISSW:

 • Airbags are catching on fast: Of 357 respondents to the online survey we put out last spring, 60 percent owned airbags; 52 percent had purchased theirs within the last year. A third of the airbag owners were snowmobilers.

 • The majority are educated: 55% had taken a formal on-snow avalanche course.

• The biggest reason for buying an avalanche airbag was “statistics.” Other respondents repeatedly mentioned that they don’t trust their partners to perform a rescue—or the airbag was provided to them by a loved one.

 • This one was disturbing: 19 respondents admitted that wearing an avalanche airbag increases their tolerance for risk and affects their decisions on choosing terrain.

 • Thirteen respondents had actually deployed their airbag in an avalanche. Of those, 12 ended up on the surface. One other was completely buried, but was rescued by a partner with a beacon, probe, and shovel.

• Half of those incidents were not reported to the authorities or to an avalanche center. With beacon rescues, our previous research  has shown that 40 percent of incidents go unreported. This number appears to be higher for incidents with airbags, as fatalities and injuries are less common.

 The main difference between Steve’s survey and the one presented by Haegeli is that Steve’s included unreported incidents, which makes a huge difference. It was also not limited to worst-case incidents involving more than one victim, which may have skewed Haegeli’s statistics. Either way, both studies confirm that avalanche airbags are making a significant difference in saving lives.

While there are obviously other airbag incidents that have occurred in the U.S., Steve only included those incidents that were reported in his survey. BCA plans to keep this research going, so if you have used an airbag in an avalanche, please fill out the survey here or contact us at info@backcountryaccess.com.

 This series is dedidated to Theo Meiners, founder of Alaska Rendezvous Heli Guides, who passed away at the 2012 ISSW. Theo has been a long-time friend and ally of BCA.

  • Mike

    I think you’re incorrect that Pascal’s stats are “skewed” (assuming you’re not using that in the technical sense) — it’s much more likely your survey is skewed for several reasons.

    First, your respondents are self-selecting, making them a much less useful sample for scientific research.
    Second, your respondents stories aren’t validated and verified by experts; this is a problem in general with avalanche accidents, but an unscientific survey with leading questions and specifically managed by the manufacturer of of the equipment in question is going to solicit responses of a certain type.
    Thirdly, your survey includes avalanches incidents that may not have been severe; the whole point of the airbag is to prevent burial; if the avalanche wasn`t severe enough to bury people then perhaps it`s not a valid data point to test your theory that your device works.
    All in all, I think that Pascal`s research is the best thing going. You guys should be touting his numbers as absolute proof that your product works. Imagine a drug company that said they could prevent death in 50% of cancer patients — that`s what you guys invented! That’s incredible!!!!
    Rather than picking holes in Pascal`s research and presenting an internet poll as “research” you should be using the science to back your claims.

    • steve

      Mike,

      I think you’re absolutely correct. “Skewed” is too strong of a word to apply to Pascal’s numbers and we didn’t mean that in a negative sense. Our main point is that there are quite a few accidents out there that go unreported and are not able to be tracked. I’ve shared this information with both Pascal and one of his research partners. We’ve discovered that they have three or four incidents that we don’t have and we discovered three of four incidents that they don’t have. Some of ours will not qualify for Pascal’s work but all of his qualify for our data tracking if they took place in the U.S.

      Self selecting: I don’t agree with you on that point. Like I stated above, our survey was effective in uncovering airbag deployments that had not been captured in previous data because they were unreported to avalanche centers.

      But you have some more valid points: Pascal’s research was quantified by Class 2 avalanches or larger. Ours was about “debris pile size” and overall use. Class 2 or larger is a very effective measure of an airbag likely contributing to a save. Correct: our survey includes incidents that may not have been severe because we did not use a Class 2 qualifier. However, we were able to validate that each incident involved transport on or under the avalanche debris while the snow was moving.

      We also agree that Pascal et al. is presenting the best and most in-depth research related to airbags. We’re glad that someone with a Phd is interested in this topic and has dedicated so much time to it. Pascal’s research is 100% scientific and valid. Our research uncovered some good information but if you take the time to read the paper thoroughly you’ll see that our conclusions are matter-of-fact statements/suggestions rather than conclusive, scientific research.

      I want to reassure you that we have only the utmost respect for Pascal, his crew, and their continuing research. We have worked in parallel after ISSW to provide each other with missing information that could aid in further results for both Pascal and BCA.

      One thing: the overall goal of our survey was to study airbag use in the U.S. which has been excluded from European and Canadian studies (until Pascal became involved, thankfully). I think we’re off to a good start!

      Thanks, Steve