Q&A: Association Nationale Etude Neige et Avalanches

Dominique Létang

Director, Association Nationale Etude Neige et Avalanches

The French National Association for the Study of Snow and Avalanches (ANENA) was formed in October 1971 on the recommendation of the Saunier Commission. The Commission was set up a year earlier to investigate the deaths of 39 people in the popular ski resort of Val d’Isere caused by an avalanche which devastated a local hotel. French President, Georges Pompidou, declared the event a national tragedy and ordered numerous other hotels to be evacuated amid fears of further avalanches. However, during the same winter, other tragic avalanche accidents in the French Alps left many more victims dead or injured. As a consequence, the Saunier Commission saw its raison d’être extended to “the study of mountain safety”.

The subsequent Commission report laid the foundations for global policy in the field of snow and avalanche research. Among the recommendations in the report was the creation of an organisation focused on the coordination of avalanche research. And so ANENA was born. The first objectives of the newly formed organisation were aimed at improving an understanding of avalanches in forecasting, prevention and protection. Today, ANENA uses the latest research to inform public safety information and training in snow and avalanche rescue.

WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF DOGS’ INVOLVEMENT IN AVALANCHE RESCUE?

The first dogs used to search for people in the snow were the St. Bernard dogs of the Grand St Bernard Pass hospice in Switzerland. Originally thought to have been bred as guard dogs, evidence of these dogs rescuing lost travellers first appeared around 1690. However, it wasn’t until the 1930s that smaller and more agile dogs were used in Switzerland to search for victims buried by avalanches.

In France, the first dogs were used by mountain rescue teams from the National Police in the mid-1950s. Following the Saunier Commission report, a national diploma in avalanche rescue was created in the late 1970s.

ANENA has been responsible for the training of civil security avalanche dog- handlers since 1992. The association trains around 20 expert dog teams each year.

So, while dogs have been used in the mountains to search for people for hundreds of years, it is only in the last century that they have been formally used in avalanche rescue.

WHAT ROLE DO DOGS PLAY IN AVALANCHE RESCUE AND WHY ARE THEY SO IMPORTANT?

When a victim is buried by an avalanche, there are a number of ways they can be located: using an avalanche transceiver, Recco (rescue technology), through probing, or with avalanche search dogs. Alongside the use of probes, dogs are the oldest method of finding someone buried under the snow. The dog uses its sense of smell to detect a victim’s scent which has risen up to the surface of the avalanche deposit.

So today, if a person is buried by an avalanche and they are not carrying an electronic tracking device, a dog search team is the fastest way to locate them.

WHAT TRAINING DO DOGS AND THEIR HANDLERS HAVE TO UNDERGO TO BECOME QUALIFIED BY ANENA?

The dogs must be between one and four years old to begin their training. The team, made up of dog and handler, must undertake a minimum of 30 hours pre-training (with an accredited ANENA instructor) before attending the official training course.The official certification course lasts two weeks, at the end of which the team hopes to achieve a diploma.

It is important to say that the diploma is awarded to the team and not to an individual or dog.Therefore, each time a person has a new dog, he or she must train for and pass the diploma again with their new dog, certifying the new ‘rescue team’.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN DOG AND HANDLER? WHAT PART DOES THIS RELATIONSHIP PLAY IN THEIR EFFECTIVENESS?

The relationship between the dog and its owner is practically ‘fusionnel’ which roughly translates from French as symbiotic. The connection is vital for the team and its efficiency on the job. The rescuer spends a large part of his or her personal and professional time with their dog. They are a real work couple which, in the end, allows the team to work more quickly and effectively.

HOW COMMON IS THE USE OF DOGS FOR MOUNTAIN AND AVALANCHE RESCUE?

When an avalanche occurs, if a person is thought to have been buried, then at least one dog team will be deployed in seven out of ten incidents.When a rescue is conducted by an official mountain rescue team (and not by a member of the victim’s party), 20% of the buried victims are found by a dog; compared with 37% found by transceivers; surface clues (21%); in line/organised probing (17%); Recco device (3%); spot probing (2%); and other means (1%).

In the ten years from 2008 to 2018, at ANENA we recorded 87 people found by an avalanche search dog. Of these 87 people, 15% were found alive. Some people may ask why this figure isn’t higher – it is not due to the skill of the team but the time it takes for them to reach the site of an avalanche.

A search team will rarely be in position to reach the site of an avalanche in under 30-40 minutes, by which time a victim’s chances of survival (buried under the snow for half an hour) are estimated to have fallen to 35%.

However, as soon as a search team is at an avalanche deposit, dogs are the fastest way to find a person buried under the snow.

WHAT IS THE SCALE OF THE PROBLEM – HOW MANY RESCUES ARE THE DOGS INVOLVED IN EACH YEAR?

On average about 200 people are caught in avalanches each year in France. In 2019, 92 people needed to be rescued from avalanches and 13 of them died.

An increasing number of people now carry avalanche transceivers and as a result more people have been located using one, either by their companions or by organised rescuers, such as ski patrollers, police and gendarmerie. Between 1999 and 2004 only 18% of people buried were found by avalanche transceivers, rising to 42% between 2013 and 2018. Over the same period between 1999 and 2004, 30% of victims were found by search dogs; between 2013 and 2018, 13% of those rescued were found by dogs.

Although there has been a decrease in the number of people being found by search dogs, the avalanche dog teams are always involved in every departmental mountain rescue plan because not every person will be equipped with an electronic location device.

HOW HAS THE USE OF DOGS SHAPED MOUNTAIN RESCUE PROCEDURES?

Each year, the mountain rescue coordinator decides which dog teams will be included in the mountain rescue plan. Ski patrollers and their dogs are assigned to ski resorts. They will operate in their own resort but also, on demand, react to avalanches in other resorts.

They are not usually dispatched on high mountain rescue operations – that is to say – in mountain areas outside of ski resorts. These areas are operated by national rescue institutions, the PGHM (military police) and the CRS (civilian police).

CAN YOU PUT A PRICE ON HOW MUCH THESE DOGS SAVE RESCUE TEAMS?

It is impossible to put a monetary value on these dogs.What I can say is that, to search and locate a victim buried in an area 100m x 100m, it will take approximately 5-10 minutes with a transceiver, 15-20 minutes with a dog but up to four hours with a line of ten rescuers equipped with probes.

As I mentioned earlier, for those victims buried in the snow, every second counts. For the families of those caught in an avalanche, these rescue dogs are literally invaluable.

HOW WOULD YOU ASSESS THE WIDER IMPACT OF SEARCH DOGS? WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF DOGS COULD NOT BE USED IN THIS WAY?

In spite of the trend towards electronic locating devices, many of those buried each year are still not equipped with avalanche transceivers. Our ability to find these people still relies on the same methods which have been used for years: dogs and probes. Sadly, the time it takes for the search team to reach the avalanche site means that many people do not survive, but a significant number of victims are found alive. There is no question that without avalanche dog search teams, more people would lose their lives as a result of avalanches each year. Of course, it’s impossible to put a price on the lives that have and will be saved by these dedicated teams! Therefore, the highly trained pairing of dog and handler will always have a role in avalanche rescue.

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THE EXAMPLE SET BY ANENA IN THE USE OF DOGS?

What is clear to us at ANENA is that a very special ‘fusionnel’ relationship exists between a dog and their human handler. The strength of this bond and the mutual understanding which comes from it means the teams are highly effective at saving lives – even in the 21st century.