Many people find themselves in life threatening situations often due to a lack of navigational skills or equipment, proper equipment planning, bad luck, acts of god, poor decision making, physical exhaustion or injury. It can be argued that in hind-sight, many SAR cases are often due to a lack of preparedness and often viewed as people making dumb or rookie mistakes. Some people even have an attitude that PLB’s are for amateurs. The reality is that no one is infallible, and ‘stuff happens’ in the wilderness. A good outdoors-man is always working to prepare against Murphy’s law.
The reality is that no one is infallible, and 'stuff happens' in the wilderness.
As a youngster, I was told that if I was ever lost and in need of rescue in the wild, that I should signal for help. The suggested methods at the time were creating a steamy fire with green/ wet foliage to create a white column of smoke. Using a signal mirror presumably at a rescue aircraft flying overhead, or blowing a whistle. I imagined that in those scenarios if I was lost, possibly dying of exposure or injury to the point of fearing for my life or feeling desperate that those suggestions for signaling seemed like futile acts of desperation. Consider also, that if someone goes missing and no itinerary is left to alert rescuers that someone is missing, those methods of signaling could also be overlooked. A signaling mirror may not get the attention of pilots at high altitude not looking for missing persons. A steamy fire is a signal not recognized by many people in these modern times and could be written off as a camp fire, or burning yard waste. Especially if no itinerary was left or there was no rescue party looking for those vague signals.
A personal locator beacon is a hand held electronic device that transmits your GPS coordinates to Search and Rescue dedicated satellites (SARSAT) in orbit, which through a series of dispatches will reach your local SAR teams who will plan and execute your rescue. The ACR PLB also emits a radio homing frequency at 121.5 MHz that is audible to SAR teams with proper equipment to help find your position. Some PLB’s will also strobe in infrared aiding teams searching with infra red night vision devices.
Anyone traveling outside of cell reception can benefit from a PLB. People may think that off-road enthusiasts, back packers, mountaineers, can get themselves in places too remote to self rescue, or engage in high-risk activity as the ones who are candidates to carry PLB’s. Hikers may think a PLB is a more extreme measure than they will ever need. The Search and Rescue statistics actually cite day-hikers as the leading activity group called out for wilderness rescue. Moreover, even a rural car crash out side of cell phone range could benefit from the use of a PLB. To top it off, the cost on PLB’s since their introduction in 2003 is very affordable and available to the public.
PLB Construction and Durability
Years ago I spoke with an engineer, Mikhail at ACR. He told me that the beacons were mandated by the government to meet a certain criteria for toughness and functionality to qualify to be legally labeled as PLB’s taking up precious SAR and SARSAT resources. He told me that he had literally beaten the units with baseball bats in shock testing and froze them in liquid nitrogen to see how cold they can operate. The ACR units, like the Rescue Link and SAR Link have very durable cases. Juxtaposed with a satellite phone, that kind of durability is crucial in the back country. They are also waterproof- unlike a sat phone. Aiding the fool-proof reliability is the hard wired battery. While it seems like a draw back having to send the unit to the factory at a recommended interval to have it replaced, this negates the chance of ‘forgetting to charge it’ before a trip with a rechargeable system, or potentially losing weather sealing with a user changeable unit. There is also a self test function to make sure the battery is still functional before a trip, as well as a plastic shield blocking the activation button from turning on inside a pack or pocket. All of these features make the PLB very reliable for an electronic device.
A PLB unlike a SAT phone has a major functionality advantage in usability in emergency situations. Consider the SAT phone again for comparison. The order of operations to use the phone- Phone has to be pre-charged, turned on, then a signal located- usually in a clear area which may require hiking, which may not be possible for the injured, or leaving an injured party’s aid to make the call for help. Then the user must have a relevant emergency service phone number pre-programmed in the phone (911 wont work), and remember to dial the international calling code before the number. A voice signal is also more difficult to properly transmit and understand, for example a voice phone call losing signal, yet a simpler text transmission will go out from the same position. Once the distressed party reaches rescue services on the phone, they need to be able function to be able to convey the location, and situation verbally. Consider a situation where someone doesn’t have all of their faculties. Hypothermia for example causes symptoms known as the ‘umbles.’ ‘Fumbling’ with things as manual dexterity and control leaves the body- necessary for dialing the phones keypad. The ‘mumbles’ as people become incoherent and irrational, and the ‘stumbles’ as the body can no longer walk. Operating a SAT phone in that state may be a non-option. SAT phones also requires visual function to dial, and auditory functionality to hear, as well as speech, and ideally some rational information being conveyed to the rescuers. A PLB on the other hand on only requires the antenna/ button shield be flipped up like a big lever, and a big red button with tactile feed back, be depressed. Any person with no training can quickly figure it out.
True PLB’s on the SARSAT system do not have mandatory subscription fees at this point. The units themselves now range round the $250 mark. While that may sound expensive for some people, especially those who don’t get out often. It’s unlikely that anyone has been lost, dying alone in the wilderness, reflecting on their lives and their loved ones, and said to themselves, “I may be dying scared and alone, but at least I saved $300 on that PLB.”