Electronic devices, to aid in the rescue and recovery of those in trouble, have been the most significant new technology developed over the past couple of years. While various kinds of Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) and the like have been around for many years, several new products became available in 2007 that you who work or recreate in the outdoors should be aware of.
As a baseline for comparison beacons that transmit an emergency signal on 121.5 MHz have been around a long time. Every general aviation aircraft, for example, is equipped with such a beacon that is designed to deploy following a crash landing or to be turned on manually by the survivors of the accident. Similar beacons transmitting on the 121.5MHz frequency are available that hikers, hunters and others who end up in trouble in the backcountry could use to alert the authorities that they needed help. In 2009 the satellites that support the 121.5 MHz frequency will no longer operational. The signal will still be detectable by Search and Rescue personal using direction finding equipment and by other radios, tuned in to that frequency but the satellite link will no longer be there.
PERSONAL LOCATOR BEACONS
In the marine world, Emergency Positioning Indicating Beacons (EPIRBs) transmitting on 406 MHz have been in use for many years. As of ……… PLBs that transmit on this same frequency have also become available to both the flying community and to those of us that travel the backcountry on foot, by ATV, horseback, canoe or any other means of locomotion. While there are a number of manufacturers of PLBs, ACR Electronics based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida www.acrelectronics.com have been the leaders in the industry and produce reliable, easy to use beacons that have resulted in many people being rescued quickly. Upon purchase, the owner is required by law to register the PLB with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency – the owner of the satellite constellation that supports the beacons and to periodically reregister the PLB to insure that the most up-to-date information is available to SAR authorities in the event your PLB is activated. This can all be accomplished using the internet. 406 MHz beacons can be used anywhere in the world between the latitudes of 70° north latitude and 70° south latitude. The COSSPASS – SARSAT satellite system detects the signal and downlinks it to a Local User Terminal which in turn sends the signal on to a Rescue Coordination Center (RCC). The RCC than forwards the information to the Search and Rescue agency closest to the geographic location to the origin of the signal. This is made possible by the Global Positioning System coordinate that is transmitting by the PLB as part of the distress signal. Another significant advantage of this process is that each PLB also transmits a unique code that identifies the owner of the PLB. So not only do the authorities know who is in trouble they also know where that person is! This eliminates the 95% false alarm rate experienced by beacons transmitting on 121.5 MHz and speeds up the rescue process because those that are tasked to recover you know where you are.
PLBs cost around $600 but once purchased, there is no additional subscription fee to use the service.
As of December 7th 2007 there have been 207 rescues attributed to the 406MHz beacons in the United States.
SPOT Tracking and Messaging
A brand new piece of equipment, the SPOT Messaging and Tracking Device, offers some interesting different options. As with the PLBs, following purchase, the device must be registered only in this case, the SPOT is registered with the manufacturer using the internet. After filling out the customary owner information, level of service needed and payment options the owner also designates up to four people to whom either a text message or an email message will be sent when the SPOT is activated. These people are your “SPOTteam members. The first option is the “I’m OK/Mode” choice. By pressing the “OK” button a message that the owner designs will be sent to those you have selected informing them of your status. It could read, for example, “Everything is fine. I’m OK and just checking in to let you know my status.” The second option which would go to the same or different recipients is the “Help” button. In this case the owner of the SPOT is in some difficulty, usually a non-life threatening situation, and needs some help but does not need to or want to involve the authorities. This might include a vehicle breakdown, possibly becoming lost or some similar situation where the user is unable to resolve the problem and requires outside assistance. Once again either an email or text message is sent to the addressees you have selected.
The third option is the “911” option. When this button is activated an emergency signal is sent to the GEOS Global Command and Control Center, in Huston, Texas. They in turn contact the appropriate rescue organization or agency in the area from which the signal is emanating. Pressing both the “HELP” and the “911” results in your emergency signal going out to both the Global Command Center.
A link to Google Maps is also provided when any of the buttons on the SPOT are activated. Contained in the email message will be a link to Google Maps which, when selected, result in a Google Map appearing which shows your location. When text messaging is used the message will contain your latitude and longitude position.
A forth choice is also available. For an additional $50/year the SPOT can track your movement. Assuming the SPOT is turned on and left on, your position is transmitted every ten minutes, for 24 hours. Once again these positions can be seen on the Google Map link.
When compared to a PLB the upfront cost of a SPOT is lower, $150 for the hardware, however the owner must also pay an annual subscription fee $100 to $150 depending on the level of service.
Despite the fact that the SPOT has been available less than a year there have already been four rescues attributed to the device in the United States.
WHO WOULD BENEFIT FROM CARRYING A BEACON?
• Carrying either a PLB or a SPOT should be strongly considered by anyone who works or recreates alone in remote areas
• For those traveling in those parts of the world where obtaining help may be difficult or non-existent
• When weather conditions could
Without a doubt a survivor, faced with a life threatening situation, who could transmit a message to either family and friends or the authorities that resulted in a quick rescue would be most appreciative of the equipment. It should be remembered that none of the devices guarantee the immediate arrival of Search and Rescue personnel on scene. Despite the effectiveness of PLBS and the SPOT devices in particular, the survivor still has to “survive” until rescue arrives on scene.
Depending on the circumstances, the user can send a message