This article is not just about what a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is and how it works, this article is really about why you should buy one for yourself or for someone you care about if anyone spends time in the backcountry or any place that is remote or hard to reach. If you break a leg in the middle of town, grit your teeth and hang on. Help will arrive shortly.
If you do the same thing three miles from the closest road and don’t have cell service, you may be in serious trouble, especially if you are alone.
What is a PLB?
A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a small portable transmitter that is capable of sending a 406 MHz distress signal that can be received by the Search And Rescue Satellite-aided Tracking system (COSPAS-SARSAT). In the U.S., the system is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). COSPAS is the Russian contribution to the system. The PLB also simultaneously transmits on the local Search and Rescue (SAR) frequency (121.5MHz).
International Search and Rescue System
The system was organized by four main parties (Canada, France, Russia and U.S.A) in 1982. The space assets currently include eight Low-Earth Orbiting Search And Rescue (LEOSAR) Satellites (6 NOAA and 2 Russian) and eight (6 active, 2 on Standby) Geostationary Orbiting Search And Rescue (GEOSAR) Satellites. 43 countries are involved with supplying ground facilities, and the world-wide system includes 30 MMCs (Mission Control Centers, 58 LEOLUTs (Low-Earth Orbiting Local Users Terminals) and 20 GEOLUTs (Geostationary Orbiting Local Users Terminals).
How the Search and Rescue System Works with Your PLB
When a distress signal is sent from your PLB, the SARSAT satellites detect and locate the source of the signal. The signal is relayed to the closest of 30 Mission Control Centers around the Earth. In the U.S., the Mission Control Center (USMCC) is in Suitland, Maryland and signals originating from land are then routed to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Local Search and Rescue is then contacted. Signals from the Ocean are routed to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Dedicated Search and Rescue Satellites
The stationary GEOSAR satellites positioned over the equator provide continual coverage of the Earth between 70° North and 70° South and can detect distress signals almost instantaneously. They can not be used to determine location, but they can receive location data if the PLB is transmitting GPS location. The entire continental U.S, Mexico and most of Canada is continually covered by two GEOSAR satellites (GOES13 & 15). Alaska is covered by GOES 16. Many areas of the earth are covered by three or four GEOSAR satellites. Three properly spaced GEOSAR satellites could cover the entire earth between 70° North and 70° South, so there are more than enough to do the job. There are additional satellites and new technology planned to improve the system in the near future (U.S. DASS and European Galileo).
LEOSAR satellites are constantly orbiting the earth from pole to pole every 101-105 minutes and can view an area of about 6,000 km at a time, so the entire globe is covered about twice per day by each satellite, but there may be short time gaps without coverage. The moving LEOSAR satellites are able to determine signal location by measuring the Doppler frequency shift of incoming signals. LEOSAR satellites are capable of receiving signals from the polar regions that are not covered by GEOSAR satellites.
By combining orbiting and geostationary satellites, the entire earth is covered. Distress signals can be detected almost immediately for most areas of the earth and location can be determined for most signals after about 45 minutes period of time. See our post on Worst Case Scenario PLB Testing – PLB Test in Slot Canyons at Zion NP (publishing shortly).
Since their approval in 2003, like all new electronic devices, PLBs have gotten smaller and less expensive, to the point that cost can’t be used as an excuse not to buy one. PLBs with GPS ability transmit the GPS location and the registered serial number identifying the owner along with the distress signal, so if the unit has an unobstructed view of the sky, location is detected to within about 100 yards in a few minutes. For units without GPS, or when a GPS data can not be collected, the location is determined using Doppler technology from the signal source to the satellites. If the PLB has an unobstructed view of the sky, depending upon the current location of all satellites, this process can take anywhere between 10 minutes to about 45 minutes for a location within two miles of the PLB. If the PLB is in a location such as a deep canyon, where much of the sky is blocked, this process may take more than 12 hours.
My “Wish I had a PLB” Story
Two years ago, my brother, his wife and daughter came to visit. We rented snow machines and were riding on well traveled and maintained trails. We stayed on the main trails and rode through the aspen for about an hour until we got out into some un-tracked powder in an open area and started playing around. It didn’t take long until my niece crested a hill too fast and bailed off the machine before it crashed into the creek. There was a little damage to the snow machine, but my niece had broken her femur (thigh bone).
I wasn’t surprise we didn’t have cell service and since I was the only one that knew the area, I had to go get help. I had to guess that the fastest way to find help was in the direction of a USFS visitor’s center, an RV parking area and a main road that was about 15-20 minutes away by snow machine. The lodge was in the opposite direction about 45-50 minutes away. I did not have a PLB then. If I did, I would have activated it and left it pinging away with my brother and then gone for help.
There was not a single person in the RV parking area. My next option, the visitor’s center was closed and the pay phone in the parking lot was not working and still no cell service. That is a sickening feeling knowing that she was waiting on me to call for help as fast as possible and I was striking out. I started down the snow covered road to the main highway about a mile away when I noticed the snow had been recently plowed at some nearby USFS buildings. Luckily, there was someone there with a phone that worked and I was able to contact 911 about 20 minutes after the accident. That is about 19 minutes slower than a PLB could have called for help.
While I was waiting beside the road to direct SAR to the site, I got lucky again. A search and rescue vehicle just happened to drive down the road. Why had he not been contacted by 911? Because he was from out of state and was working as an advisor for a movie being filmed in the area. I flagged him down and took him back to my niece on the snow machine in less than an hour after the accident. He had a SAR radio and GPS and was able to talk directly to dispatch and directed a helicopter to the location. She was lucky that the fracture had not punctured any blood vessels. She was young and healed quickly and lucky again that both legs are the same length, but she will trigger metal detectors the rest of her life.
I vowed that I would never be so helpless and have to depend so much on luck if I was ever involved in an emergency situation like that again.
What a PLB is Not
PLBs are meant for Emergencies only. They are not to be used to call home for someone to bring a gallon of gas for the truck, a 12-pack and ice for the cooler or to bring the horses to pack out the elk.
A PLB is not an avalanche beacon. Several years ago, the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group based in Boulder Colorado had responded to nine distress signals from the same PLB (unregistered) at various places. Each time the beacon was turned off before they could find the person. But finally, the goofball forgot to turn off the signal and he was tracked down in a found waiting in a Boulder doctor’s office. The PLB had been given to him as a gift and he assumed it was an avalanche beacon and was using it (incorrectly) as such.
PLBs are not substitutes for Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELT) used in aircraft or Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) used by ships which can be triggered manually or automatically in emergencies such as a plane crash or when a ship sinks.
1-800-851-3051 is the number to report accidental activation of PLBs in U.S. If you already have a PLB, jot this number down in case you trigger your PLB by mistake.
PLBs Must be Registered
There seem to be a lot distress signals from unregistered PLBs. No one is sure why, perhaps people are testing or just playing with them.
We also need to make sure we follow directions when testing PLBs, so false signals are not sent.
For this technology to continue to work to save people in real distress, we must not waste the time and resources of SAR. PLBs must be registered and accidental activations must be reported.
If you have not registered your PLB, click here and register. It is easy and it is free.
Peace of Mind with PLB – Outdoor Recreation Insurance
Recently, my wife and I were watching the Mountain Men TV show on the History Channel. Tom Oar was out setting beaver traps in Northern Montana and his wife was worried because it was late in the day and he hadn’t come home. She called a friend, who then spent two hours tracking him in the snow to see if he was O.K. He was perfectly fine and just out enjoying the day.
Nice to have friends like that. First thing my wife said was ” if he had a PLB, they wouldn’t have to worry so much”. Since this was on a TV show I know in reality, he had at least one camera man with him, but it is a good demonstration of why many of us need a PLB. How many times have we seen the pilots of Flying Wild Alaska on the Discovery Channel looking for people that were lost in the Alaskan Wilderness without a PLB?
In the last few years, I can think of at least 5 people that have died or gone missing near here and three others that suffered horrendous conditions until they were rescued. I suspect that the deaths could have been prevented, the missing would have been found and the suffering would have been much less if these people had PLBs.
No More Excuses Not to Have a PLB
With the price of PLB with GPS around $250 there is no excuse for any person that spends time in any remote area not to have one.
Before you buy another gun, another bow, another boat or any other toy, you should buy a PLB.
Who is most likely to really need a PLB? Young men. Who is likely to be the last people to spend their hard earned money on a PLB? Young men, especially those with families, but just like life insurance, they are the people that most need it.
If you know someone that hunts, hikes or camps in remote areas, buy one for them for their Birthday, Christmas or just because it’s hunting season and for your peace of mind if nothing else.
You can read more about how the system works by visiting cospas-sarsat.org
Next read our PLB Comparison Review of ACR and McMurdo personal locator beacons.
Question: Have you or someone you know been in a situation where they wished they had a PLB?