Locator Beacons Available For Outdoors Enthusiasts

There has been a major positive step towards better and faster search and rescue operations within the United States. As of July 1, 2003, a regulation passed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) makes it legal to use Personal Locator Beacons (PLB’s) to send individual user, land-based emergency signals in times of life-threatening situations outdoors.

Such beacons have been used in other countries for many years. In the U.S., however, only boats using Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons known as EPIRB’s and small aircraft using an Emergency Locator Beacons (ELT’s) had the capability of sending an emergency distress signal that was linked to the world search and rescue satellite network. Outdoors enthusiasts had to rely on primitive signaling means or, more recently, limited technology such as a cell phone.

PLB’s Signal Satellite
The PLB system works just like the EPIRB’s and ELT’s. When activated, these units send out a signal to an overhead satellite that is part of a multi-nation network known as COSPAS-SARSAT, which is a coalition of U.S., Canadian, French and Russian satellites. These are also linked to the GOES and POES satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That signal is then relayed to a ground receiver station where it is relayed to the Air Force’s Search and Rescue Center in Suitland, Md. Once the satellite receives this signal, the entire chain of events can happen within a matter of minutes.

GyPSI 406 PLB/ACR activated with antenna extended. The regulation allowing the use of PLB’s will greatly speed up the search and rescue capabilities in this country.

In the case of the PLB, the signal sent to the satellites is at a specific frequency that has been encoded with identifiers specific to that unit. When the PLB is purchased, the buyer is required to complete a registration form that lists the buyer’s name, address, phone number and other pertinent information. When the signal from that specific PLB unit is picked up and relayed, those codes are read and the user is identified.

It’s at this point where proponents of the PLB program say the search and rescue program becomes more efficient. The agency responsible for search and rescue in the area where the PLB signal originates can call the registration number to verify that the device has actually been activated due to an emergency. For example, if the call is made to the user’s number and it’s learned that he or she is “up north fishing,” it’s more likely that this is a legitimate emergency signal. If, however, that call is made and it’s learned the person is out in the garage “cleaning out the pickup,” a costly search can be averted.

A Self-Activated Unit
This brings up the most important point about the PLB. It is a self-activated unit requiring two to three specific steps — depending upon the model — to activate. That activation should only occur after every other means of signaling has been attempted and only in dire, life-threatening circumstances. Currently, there is no fine for triggering a false alarm accidentally. However, it is a felony offense with very stiff fines for knowingly and willing setting off a false emergency signal.

The PLB’s available in the U.S. operate on two frequencies; 406 MHz that establishes the location via the satellite network, and 121 MHz that helps searchers home in during the ground search. Some PLB’s also have a GPS unit built into them while others allow an external GPS unit to be attached (not all GPS units have that capability, however). Those enhanced units enable rescuers to home in on the victim to within a hundred yards or so.

Accidental Triggering Minimized
The units have staged switching to minimize accidental triggering. They are housed in sturdy outdoor cases and at least two of the units float. All claim to be waterproof to a depth of one meter (3.3 feet). The units are all designed to operate at temperatures of at least -40 degrees Fahrenheit (some may require a special heavy-duty battery).

Personal Locator Beacons: (left to right) Micro PLB by Microwave Monolithic, Inc.; GyPSI 406 by ACR Electronics; Findfast Plus by McMurdo Pains Wessex.

Currently there are three companies manufacturing PLB’s being offered for sale in the United States: ARC Electronics, McMurdo, and Monolithic Microwave. Those without an internal GPS sell for about $700-$800 while those with a GPS retail for about $900-$1,000.

For hunters, campers, anyone actively involved in the outdoors, the regulation allowing the use of PLB’s will greatly speed up the search and rescue capabilities in this country. In that one instance when a life depends upon a quick response to an emergency, this new PLB system can make a big difference.

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