Buried in Flames

Cold Front

Outdoor gear is no stranger to civil service: Soldiers in Iraq drink from CamelBaks. Army Rangers wear SmartWool socks. W Helmets is crafting lids for Navy fighter pilots. And this season, Ortovox and Backcountry Access will introduce avalanche beacons to thousands of beneficiaries—firefighters. “We lose a lot of firemen because they get lost and run out of air, says Tom Connor, the Orange County, California, firefighter and Snow Summit volunteer ski patroller who saw the crossover potential of transceivers. “I thought, ‘I’m a ski patroller. We use beacons in avalanches—why not use them in fires?’ The idea had legs. Since avy beacons can transmit signals through concrete and steel, searchers can now pinpoint a lost firefighter’s location before going into the chaos of a burning building, making rescues safer and quicker than the old hide-and-seek method. There’s also talk of placing beacons in doorways on the way into a blaze, so that firefighters can find their way out when things get ugly.With more than 300,000 firefighters in the U.S., sales potential for the new beacons (Ortovox’s is called the Rescuevox, BCA’s is the Tracker FRT), which will go for around $425 apiece, is huge. “Manufacturers had this market under their noses and hadn’t done anything about it, says Connor.That’s good news for firefighters and manufacturers. But how will the changes help backcountry skiers? “The immediate benefit is durability, says Chris Clark of BCA, which is now housing some of its avy beacons in the new fireproof, virtually unbreakable casing. And, with any luck, more dollars coming from fire departments will mean bigger R&D budgets: “The goal, says Clark, “is to use the profits from an expanded market to redefine avalanche-transceiver technology.