Personal Locator Beacons as a Rescue Device for Backcountry Travelers

Is a PLB consistent with a responsible lightweight backpacking philosophy?

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by Ryan Jordan | 2003-11-23 03:00:00-07

Contents of this Article:

  • Official NOAA Press Release detailing the 11-14-2003 PLB-assisted rescue in Adirondack Mountains
  • Editor's commentary
  • Public discussion forum

OHIO MAN SAVED BY USING PERSONAL LOCATOR BEACON

First Person to Use New Technology in the Contiguous United States

Nov. 17, 2003 — A Cleveland, Ohio, man was rescued by the U.S. Army Fort Drum Air Ambulance Detachment outside of Watertown, N.Y., Friday through the help of a personal locator beacon or PLB. This rescue was the first using PLB technology since they became available for use in the U.S., July 1, 2003.

Carl Skalak, 55, was in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York when he activated his PLB. At 10:45 a.m. EST, personnel at the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC), at Langley Air Force Base, Va., were notified of the distress call via the Search and Rescue Satellite Aid Tracking System (SARSAT), operated by NOAA. The AFRCC notifies the appropriate state emergency rescue agency in the area where the PLB was activated.

According to Lt. Daniel Karlson, SARSAT operations support officer for NOAA, “The system worked like a gem.” Mr. Skalak decided to activate his PLB after he realized he was facing a life-threatening situation because of his isolated conditions and the brutally frigid weather. “In a matter of a few hours, Mr. Skalak might have become acutely hypothermic putting his life at risk,” Karlson explained. “Since he had properly registered his PLB, we were able to immediately confirm his whereabouts and set the wheels in motion for his rescue.”

“This was a team effort between NOAA and the AFRCC from the beginning to bring the system to fruition in the U.S.,” said Lt. Col. Morgan. “Working together, we have been able to establish a system that allows for a quicker response by emergency personnel and will hopefully help save lives in the future.”

Prior to July, PLBs had only been available for use in Alaska under a test program to evaluate their usefulness in search and rescue. The success seen in Alaska paved the way for the technology to be used throughout the rest of the nation. “This particular rescue demonstrates how well our agencies work together when it comes to saving a life,” said Ajay Mehta, the NOAA SARSAT program manager.

PLBs send out digital distress signals on the 406-megahertz frequency, which are detected by the NOAA Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) and Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (POES). GOES, the first to detect a beacon’s distress signal, hover in a fixed orbit above Earth and receive the signals, which contain registration information about the beacon and its owner. The POES constantly circle the globe, enabling them to capture and accurately locate the alerts to within a few miles. The satellites are part of the worldwide satellite search and rescue system called, COSPAS-SARSAT. The COSPAS-SARSAT system is a cluster of NOAA and Russian satellites that work together to detect distress signals anywhere in the world transmitted from PLBs and from beacons carried aboard ships and airplanes.

The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center acts as the single federal agency for coordinating search and rescue missions in the inland regions of the 48 contiguous states.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nation’s coastal and marine resources. NOAA is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Editor's Commentary

Since the November 14 event where Mr. Skalak was rescued in the Adirondacks, we've engaged in some lively discussions among the outdoor media, SAR volunteers, and military rescue professionals about the utility of a personal locator beacon (PLB) and its applicability in the lower 48.

There is no question that a personal locator beacon has saved the lives of mariners around the world. The open ocean is a vast, hostile environment subjected to conditions that frighten most of the alpinists I know that get their endorphin rush by hanging off strings and screws somehow attached to brittle ice and rotten rock.

The use of PLB's in remote areas that most of us cannot even appreciate - like the interior of Alaska, Siberia, Australia, and other seemingly Godforsaken places - has also had an impact on the safety of solo adventurers.

However, I think we need to question whether it is appropriate to endorse personal locator beacon use in the contiguous United States. After all, the most remote location (in the far SE corner of Yellowstone National Park) is still only thirty miles as a crow flies from the nearest road.

The old cell-phone arguments are similar for a personal locator beacon and will not be regurgitated here. However, PLB's offer a level of signaling reliability that is much greater than a cellular phone. Consequently, the chance that a novice outdoorsman will place security in a PLB is far greater.

I've participated as an SAR accident analyst for 12 years. Nearly every outdoor and mountaineering rescue that our committees have assessed has been attributed to the outdoorsman taking risks inappropriate for their level of experience and/or equipment. Hindsight is 20/20, of course. It's easier to analyze an accident than to have the forethought to prevent it. However, it is extremely valuable to consider the context in which the personal locator beacon was activated in this particular rescue.

To quote from the manufacturer's (ACR Electronics, Inc.) press release about this event:

"On November 14th, the 55-year-old (Carl J. Skalak, Jr.) ... decided to summon emergency help with his recently purchased personal locator beacon, after several days weathering gale force winds and torrential rains followed by 18 to 22 inches of snow at his remote one-man camp along the Oswegatchie River in Adirondack State Park. On a week's canoe and hunting trip, the Cleveland, Ohio resident found himself virtually stranded when icy conditions caused the Oswegatchie River to freeze over, and thigh deep snow drifts made walking virtually impossible. Skalak, an experienced outdoorsman and hunter, had filed an itinerary with New York State Forest Rangers, but wasn't expected to return until the following Monday. After considering his food and fuel rations, physical condition, and the potential for weather to worsen, Skalak activated the beacon putting into motion a search and rescue scenario that ended in his rescue by a U.S. Army Helicopter later that day."

There are several issues that an accident analyst considers when performing a rescue assessment. We will consider one of those issues here. Since we were not directly involved in the rescue, and do not have all of the facts at hand (although we must assume that the manufacturer's press release presents an interpretation of the facts that emphasizes the appropriate use of their product), it would be inappropriate for us to comment on this particular incident (although you can bet that we have questions). Rather, we hope to provide a foundation for decision making for outdoorsmen carrying PLB's.

What is the condition of the victim that led to a call for rescue/evacuation?

Commentary: It is commonly accepted that calls for rescue and evacuation are appropriate in situations where conditions are life-threatening. Such conditions might include immobilizing injuries, lack of shelter and/or clothing in combination with unexpectedly cold conditions, or a severely weakened physical condition caused by several days without food or water. In general, a rescue should not be initiated until the victim has exhausted reasonable means for survival and self-extraction. In severely inclement weather conditions where a victim is at a high risk of exposure-related injuries (hypothermia, frostbite), then any and all means of shelter and warmth (including clothing, fires, tents, etc.) should be employed for survival. In the absence of such means, a rescue may be appropriate.

In short, the incident of November 14th is a significant one. It represents a very important precedent that is currently the standard of measure for appropriate use of a PLB. Whether or not "appropriate" use was exercised in this incident is merely subject to different interpretation by different individuals. As such, land use of PLB's in the contiguous U.S., and the use of a PLB in this incident, will be provide fodder for a hot debate for a long time to come.

The NOAA press release indicates the Mr. Skalak was (emphasis mine) "facing a life-threatening situation because of his isolated conditions and brutally frigid weather. In a matter of a few hours, Mr. Skalak might have become acutely hypothermic putting his life at risk."

Are we then left to believe, from interpreting the details released about this incident, that (1) any time we face a life-threatening situation we are to activate our PLB. Or, (2) is brutally frigid weather and isolated conditions warrant the use of a PLB? Finally, (3) is the prospect that one may become hypothermic warrant a PLB-assisted rescue?

Likewise, we are left to interpret the manufacturer's press release in a similar manner: "After considering ... food and fuel rations, physical condition, and the potential for weather to worsen ..." Unfortunately, we are left with few real details about Mr. Skalak's food and fuel rations or his physical condition, other than he was apparently released without incident following a medical examination (which is standard operating procedure for SAR victims). In summary, are we left to believe that activating a PLB is appropriate if we have some food, fuel (or the ability to build a fire), are tired (even "exhausted"), or we think the weather might worsen?

There is no question that the weather Mr. Skalak was facing was serious. Winds in the 20 to 40 mph range were occuring in the area (a gale is typically defined as 39 to 54 mph), as well as heavy snow and subfreezing temperatures. But aren't such winter blizzard conditions to be expected as a possibility in mid-November in the Adirondacks?

I'll conclude simply by noting the obvious. First, land use of PLB's will undoubtedly result in more rapid rescues and greater safety for SAR personnel who won't have to expend as much energy searching for a victim. Second, PLB's will be used by those who truly need evacuated, and they will be used by those who have to face conditions that are not normally life-threatening to those with the prerequisite skills, experience, and equipment.

Finally, we cannot help but ask:

Are there 17.6 oz (the weight of the PLB used in this rescue) of gear/supplies that you would bring instead of a PLB that would have improved your ability to cope with the conditions Mr. Skalak was facing and avoid a rescue?


Citation

"Personal Locator Beacons as a Rescue Device for Backcountry Travelers," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/00205.html, 2003-11-23 03:00:00-07.

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Personal Locator Beacons & Other Wireless Technologies for Backcountry Travel?
The purpose of this thread is to discuss rescue and emergency communications technologies, as discussed in the following articles:
Specifically, comments regarding the utility of PLB's in the context of lightweight backpacking are encouraged.
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Richard Sullivan
(richard.s) - MLife

Locale: Supernatural BC
Just got an ACR PLB on 04/09/2009 16:12:01 MDT Print View

Just got an ACR PLB, the TerraFix 406 I/O, used but never activated, weighs 12oz, $250. The more I read the more I am convinced it was a great investment. The best informational site seems to be http://equipped.org/ as Doug Ritter is heavily involved in the testing and spec development.

Roleigh Martin
(marti124) - MLife

Locale: Moderator-JohnMuirTrail Yahoo Group
Re: Just got an ACR PLB on 04/09/2009 16:43:14 MDT Print View

Richard, why did you not choose the 5.3 oz McMurdo Fastfind new PLB with GPS:

http://www.equipped.org/blog/?p=105
http://www.fastfindplb.com/en/index.php
http://www.fastfindplb.com/en/what_is_fast_find/fast_find_210.php
http://www.fastfindplb.com/en/what_is_fast_find/pdf/manual.pdf

Roleigh Martin
(marti124) - MLife

Locale: Moderator-JohnMuirTrail Yahoo Group
PLB - what is best insurance policy to get for helicopter reimbursement on 04/09/2009 16:52:36 MDT Print View

It is my understanding that in the US, if you have a life-threatening emergency and legitimately use the PLB that you have registered ahead of time with the government that if you are in a national park, the government picks up the expense of any helicopter/rescue evacuation/travel expense (until you get to the hospital at which time your medical insurance gets involved).

However if you are elsewhere, including a national forest or national wilderness area, you're at the mercy of how the individual US State handles such situations and it includes the possiblity that a private-sector helicopter evacuation service might be solicited and used and that you might have to help pay for the bill.

However, most emergency medical evacuation insurance policies require the premium payer to call THEIR phone number ahead of time for emergency transportation, which is unreasonable for a PLB situation. (No need to elaborate I hope.)

The American Express subsidiary, globaltravelshield, would not promise me claim coverage or denial in a PLB situation, so their insurance policy looks less than ideal. Does anyone have a policy/insurer they recommend? I contacted globaltravelshield.

I'm talking about this web site:
https://www.globaltravelshield.com/

Spot Messenger uses this insurer:
http://www.geosalliance.com/sar/

I am going to write them to see if they will cover the use of a PLB or not. Has anyone else already done this?

Edited by marti124 on 04/09/2009 21:20:17 MDT.

Joe Kuster
(slacklinejoe) - MLife

Locale: Flatirons
Personal Locator Beacons & Other Wireless Technologies for Backcountry Travel? on 04/09/2009 18:54:19 MDT Print View

I've read through many travel emergency insurance policies and the one that is used by SPOT that you listed above seemed to be the most complete as it seemed to lack the typical abuse loopholes. Pretty much it was if you need it, we'll cover you up to X amount. I cannot recall the exacts since it's been two years since I read the contract, but I thought it was either $200,000 or $250,000 in additional funds to haul you back.

The only glaring issue was that it does not however cover any medical claims and if you were lifted out by a medical chopper instead of a SAR chopper, so it would be possible that you might may not be covered if you are given medical attention during the flight. Fortunately, any normal medical insurance coverage should kick in for that case.

Richard Sullivan
(richard.s) - MLife

Locale: Supernatural BC
Re: Just got an ACR PLB on 04/09/2009 19:20:10 MDT Print View

Roleigh, the new Fast Find 210 looks great but the previous model was not so good. If you look at
http://www.equipped.org/406_beacon_test_summary.htm#Conclusions
and scroll down to Summary of Inland Testing you will see that the Fast Find Plus was not as good as the ACR unit. So basically I just went with ACR's reputation as building the best units. Once the FF 210 is validated I will sell the ACR and get a FF 210.

Roleigh Martin
(marti124) - MLife

Locale: Moderator-JohnMuirTrail Yahoo Group
Re: Re: Just got an ACR PLB on 04/09/2009 20:25:37 MDT Print View

Richard, what a great link. Read with extreme interest.

It appears that if you get the McMurdo Fastfind, not to rely on it for water use, and for land use, it better be a clear sky and opening to depend on it, is that your bottom line assessment of the McMurdo Fastfind?

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Just got an ACR PLB on 04/09/2009 20:40:41 MDT Print View

Richard,
Your reference is to the 2004 test report.

However, that report also include a link to a subsequent 2005 Report.

In that 2005 report the results show the McMurdo and the ACR perform similarly.

Edited by greg23 on 04/09/2009 20:41:39 MDT.

Richard Sullivan
(richard.s) - MLife

Locale: Supernatural BC
Re: Just got an ACR PLB on 04/09/2009 20:45:35 MDT Print View

Yes, it looks like McMurdo's reputation pretty much went down the tubes with that testing. Seems that if I am injured then I have to climb to the top of the nearest mountain to use the FF Plus :-|

They will be trying to reclaim it with the new design, but I will wait for info from Ritter's site to prove they can produce a product I can trust. VERY unfortunate they didn't drop the Fast Find name since people will not be able to instantly identify the new generation products.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Just got an ACR PLB on 04/09/2009 20:56:39 MDT Print View

Richard-
"Yes, it looks like McMurdo's reputation pretty much went down the tubes with that testing."

I interpreted that the 2005 report found both the McMurdo and the ACR performed equally well.

What am I missing? What are you seeing?

Richard Sullivan
(richard.s) - MLife

Locale: Supernatural BC
Re: Just got an ACR PLB on 04/09/2009 20:59:02 MDT Print View

Thanks, Greg, I didn't see that one.

So the revised FF Plus was fine. And I guess we could assume that the tested ACR prototype is the TerraFix.

I will still wait for testing on the 200 or 210 before purchasing...

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Just got an ACR PLB on 04/09/2009 21:07:00 MDT Print View

Richard,
It is sad that a private concern (Equipped To Survive Foundation) has to raise money to sort out the reliability of emergency devices "approved" by our government.

And sad that we really don't know anything about the 2009 versions of either. We can only hope quality has gone up.

PHIL BECKWITH
(P454B) - F
PLDs on 03/19/2011 08:45:03 MDT Print View

You fall down and break a leg, no one to help. You get lost and it can happen. Granted the lower 48 back country is never very far from a road but a half a mile, heck a hundred yards is to far if you are physically disabled/injured. I live in the mountain west, danger everywhere from the ground up and with 2 and 4 legs. I have a SPOT, The ORANGE COLORED PLD with spare batteries taped to the unit. It has been to Alaska, Canada and in between and going back again this spring. NEVER HAD AN OCCASION TO USE IT AND HOPEFULLY THE OCCASION NEVER ARISES. It is readily accessible, not in a pack but hooked to my clothing up near my neck. Better safe than sorry. I even carry it in the vehicle when I go off road.

Todd ~
(Narrator)

Locale: The front range
So which is it? on 05/10/2013 01:26:19 MDT Print View

In the first article of Ryan’s that I read, he concluded:

“C'mon, how light is too light? …When your safety is sacrificed? Hey, c'mon. There's risk involved. You're not out walking the moors of your city park. Less gear sometimes means more risk. Get to the point - how light is too light? YOU get to the point. Throw some stuff out of your pack and take a walk. You'll find out soon enough. Just don't tell your mom.”

In the second article of his that I read. He concluded:

“Explore your limits and you'll leave ‘your’ hike back home soon enough, and begin to hike the hike that God and nature (and their weather and brambles and grizzly bears and glacial moraines) decides you're going to hike. The minute you find yourself saying, "I can't do that," prove the voice wrong. If you succeed, good. If you fail, better. You'll learn a lot more about yourself and your limits.”

In this article, he concludes:

“…Finally, we cannot help but ask: Are there 17.6 oz (the weight of the PLB used in this rescue) of gear/supplies that you would bring instead of a PLB that would have improved your ability to cope with the conditions Mr. Skalak was facing and avoid a rescue?”

So which is it? Should one assume risk and bring so little equipment that he is learning about his limits? Is it truly good if one hits that limit and fails? Or should one bring enough equipment to actually meet unexpected conditions, providing a buffer of safety, even if it means not being able to brag to sales clerks about how few ounces he carries backpacking?