Strike Team Shovelling – Part 1: Positioning and Rotations

Strike Team Shovelling Method – Positioning. Graphic by Rory Shepherd


By BCA Ambassador Jordy Shepherd

Best practices in shovelling techniques, equipment and strategies continue to evolve in Avalanche Search and Rescue (AvSAR). Smart shovelling methods are critical, as shovelling consumes most of the time during an avalanche rescue. The Strike Team Shovelling method is a new angle that takes the best of the “strategic shovelling” and “V-shaped conveyor” methods commonly taught in avalanche rescue courses. This three-part series provides a detailed overview of the strike team shovelling, which the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) started teaching in the past couple of years in all CAA AvSAR courses.

Watch Video – Avalanche Rescue – The Strike Team Shovelling Method

Shovelling practices have improved dramatically over the past ten years. Edgerly and Atkins’s “Strategic Shovelling: The Next Frontier in Companion Rescue” and Manuel Genswein’s “V-Shaped Conveyor Shovelling Method” have introduced new ideas to improve shovelling efficiency and effectiveness. The new Strike Team Shovelling Method incorporates many techniques from these other methods. Strike Team Shovelling seeks to simplify the spacing, communication, and rotation of shovellers with a focus on teamwork and clear leadership during the shovelling phase of an avalanche rescue.

This method fits nicely into the Incident Command System (ICS), a function-based emergency management system often used by search-and-rescue organizations. One level of the ICS structure is the strike team. Strike teams are made up of groups of similar resources (such as shovellers). Of course, the Strike Team Shovelling Method can be used by both recreational parties and AvSAR teams during both companion and organized rescues.

To determine where to start and how long you will need the excavation corridor to be, first assess the angle of the slope you are on. It’s easier to shovel on a steeper slope, since there is a slope to throw the snow down. If you are on a > 25-degree slope angle (steep debris pile), the length of the excavation corridor should be equal to the burial depth.

It’s much harder to shovel in flatter debris because there is no slope to throw the snow down. The excavation corridor needs to be longer if you are on a <25-degree slope angle (low angle debris pile), and the length of the excavation corridor should be about two times the burial depth. This will also create a lower angle ramp for extricating and packaging the subject for transport.

Next, determine how many strike team shovellers will be necessary. Divide the required corridor length by about 80cm of space needed for each shoveller.

Examples:

  1. For a 2m deep burial on steeper debris, the excavation should be about 2m long, and about three Strike Team shovellers are optimal. (200cm / 80cm = 2.5 shovellers > round up to 3 shovellers).
  2. For a 2m deep burial on flatter debris, the excavation corridor should be about 4m long, and about five Strike Team shovellers are optimal (400cm/80cm = 5 shovellers).

Strike Team Shovelling – Positioning

Line up the strike team to the downslope side of the probe (or in any direction from the probe if the debris is flat). Line up in a straight line. Position 1 (the lead shoveller) should have one shoulder touching the probe.

With shovel shafts fully extended, measure with a fully extended shovel from the hip of the forward shoveller to the elbow of the next shoveller (about 80cm) as the space between each shoveller. Each shoveller is responsible for 80cm of the excavation corridor. Shovel right down the probe if you get a probe strike.

The excavation corridor should be about three shovel blades wide at the probe and should widen to a maximum of 2m, at which point the corridor walls stay parallel. The side walls should be kept vertical.

Initially, throw snow to the sides, but as soon as you have shoveled 20-30cm down, all snow then gets conveyed to the person behind you. Chop and dig down, and then sweep the snow back that is conveyed from the person in front of you. Only move snow to the person behind you; do not waste energy by moving snow too far back in the conveyor.

Consider doing “positional probing” if the avalanche burial depth is greater than about 2m and you have extra resources (probes and probers) available. You might be able to determine how the victim is positioned so you can center the excavation more precisely. Shovelers start digging down the original probe strike, then use another probe or several probes to determine the boundaries of the buried subject. Position a probe in the center of the buried avalanche victim and reposition your shovelers to dig down that probe. When positional probing, make sure you don’t trample the area around the original probe strike; this could impact the victim’s air pocket.

Avalanche debris is often firm, so chop the snow into blocks, then scoop the blocks back toward the shoveller behind you, while lifting it as little as possible. Do not lever your shovel like a garden spade; you risk breaking your shovel. Try “paddling” or “sweeping” rather than lifting each shovel full of snow. Avalanche professionals recommend sturdy, aluminum shovels for strike team shovelling over plastic in real avalanche debris. If steel rescue shovels area available, request they be brought to the avalanche site as soon as possible.

Strike Team Shovelling  – Rotations

If you have the optimal number of Strike Team shovellers, the first or second person calls for rotation. The first person goes to the back, and all other shovelers rotate toward the front (#2 moves to #1 position, #3 to #2 position, etc.). Each shoveller should be responsible for approximately an 80cm cross-section of the excavation corridor.

Shovel for two to three minutes, then rotate.

The lead or second shoveller can call the rotation whenever the lead shoveller starts to slow down or is getting tired or has shovelled for two to three minutes.

When there is one extra person in addition to the optimal number of shovellers, there can be one person designated to be shovel master. The shovel master stands near the probe, ensures that spacing and technique remains correct, makes sure the side walls are vertical, and calls for the rotation. The shovel master has a shovel ready and jumps into position #1. All others rotate back one position. The last shoveller rotates into the shovel master position to rest for a cycle.

If there are extra shovellers (in addition to the shovel master), the shovel master directs the Shovel Strike Team and does not take a turn as shoveller. The first extra shoveller jumps into position #1. All others rotate back one position. The last shoveller rotates out, gets in line with the other shovellers, and rests until he/she cycles back in again. The shovel master continues to ensure spacing and technique are correct, and calls for rotation.

Special Considerations

If you do not have enough shovelers for the burial depth and slope

This is very likely in companion rescues involving small groups. To initially create the back portion of the excavation corridor, start shovelling downslope of the probe at a distance of about 1/2 the burial depth. Then shovel toward the probe and down to the probe tip.

If the subject is buried 1 meter or less

If the subject is buried one meter (1m) or less, put two shovellers at the front, digging right down to either side of the probe strike. This will increase the probability of locating a body part and therefore reaching the airway faster. The rest of the shovellers line up behind in single file as per regular spacing. For shallow burials one meter (1m) deep or less, there is no rotation of shovellers unless one of the front shovellers breaks a shovel or starts to slow down.

In Part 2 and Part 3 of our Strike Team Shovelling series, we’ll discuss: 1) How to fine tune the excavation once you reach the victim, and 2) What to do if the burial is so deep you don’t actually have a probe strike.


Jordy Shepherd is an ACMG/IFMGA mountain guide and BCA ambassador/instructor, living with his family in Canmore, Alberta. Jordy has lived, worked and played in the mountains his whole life. His work experience includes: Canadian Avalanche Association Course Leader for Avalanche Search and Rescue Advanced Skills, Provincial Park Ranger, National Park Warden, wildlife-human conflict specialist, wildland firefighter, structural firefighter, mountain and industrial rescue specialist, heli-skiing operations manager and lead guide, and licensed real estate agent: www.PeakAlpine.com www.CanmoreRealEstate.ca Jordy enjoys guiding and instructing clients to achieve their personal best, with a focus on avalanche safety and enjoyment of the mountains.

Shovel Strike Team Method graphics by Rory Shepherd.