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What’s a P.L.B.?

By Brian J. Lane

Wilderness hiking and backpacking excursions can be some of the most moving, meaning filled and thoroughly enjoyable experiences of our lives. That said, those same outdoor pursuits do come with many inherent risks. No matter what your level of backcountry expertise, life threatening events can and do occur in the backcountry on a daily basis, (just read the National Park Service morning reports available online and you’d see what I mean).

Personal Location Beacons, or PLBs, and their marine counterparts, the EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons - the larger emergency notification devices used aboard small ships), have been around for about 30 years. Although commercially available models approved for land-based recreational users have only been on the market since July of 2003.

When the device is activated, a rescue signal is sent to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) communicating with a large network of American, Canadian, French, and Russian satellites known as COSPAS-SARSAT. Using these satellites to get a fix on your location, they relay that information to the Rescue Coordination Center, they in turn, initiate the search and rescue mission. In the continental United States a PLB unit with a GPS interface will take only about 5 minutes to alert search and rescue personnel of your position; while a PLB without GPS interface can take an average of about 45 minutes to get a fix on your location.

There are currently 3 models that I know of available for public use, and they all work pretty much the same way…ACR Electronics and McMurdo produce very similar models. I have an ACR MicroFix, which is available at many outdoor retailers, while the McMurdo units, produced in the UK are not as readily available for retail purchase in the U.S. Both the ACR and McMurdo units weight less than a pound, are easily activated for emergencies, and have internal batteries that will transmit a signal for about 24-48 hours once deployed. The batteries have a shelf life of about five years and then must be replaced by the manufacturer. These units cost around $600-$800; but the registration is free with the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

A relative newcomer in the PLB realm is the SPOT satellite personal tracker. The SPOT has four distinct functions: Alert 911 (alerts emergency responders), Ask for Help (notifies friends or family you require assistance), Check-in (let your contacts know where you are and that all is well), and a Track Progress feature (sending and saving locations where your contacts can track your progress using Google Maps). It includes two AA 1.5V lithium batteries, and the battery life for these units is one year (unused), it can send in 911 mode for seven days, and can track for fourteen days. These units costs about $170 and require an annual service subscription of about $100. SPOT is also a few ounces lighter than the ACR and McMurdo devices.

All units will work worldwide and will reportedly float in water. In July of 2007 the first reported rescue using a PLB in Arizona occurred when one member of a small group hiking in the Thunder River area of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim became dehydrated and had to be airlifted to safety.

It must be said that PLBs are communications devices of absolute last resort – to be used only when all other self-rescue attempts have been exhausted, AND you are faced with a life-threatening emergency such as eminent loss of life, limb, eyesight, or other extreme trauma. Frivolous use will always be dealt with accordingly. Remember too that any technology (cell phones, satellite phones, PLBs, etc.) should not be relied upon to save you from threat. It is much more important to always practice safety first and use common sense when travelling in backcountry wilderness!

Hike Safe & Have Fun!

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