Editor's Note: This article was opened to the public on July 22, 2010. To subscribe and see Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2010 articles as they are published, click here.
The McMurdo Fastfind 210 Personal Location Beacon packs most of the features of a traditional PLB into a much smaller and lighter package.
UK-based McMurdo released their Fastfind 210 PLB to the US market in February 2009. Unlike personal signaling products such as the SPOT Satellite Messenger, the Fastfind is a single-purpose device whose sole purpose is to alert rescuers to your location in "situations of grave and imminent danger." It accomplishes this via the standard 406 MHz band of the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system that has been operational since 1979.
Like the SPOT Satellite Messenger, the Fastfind sends a signal with your GPS coordinates to a satellite network, which is then relayed to a ground station to alert authorities to your emergency. But, unlike SPOT, which transmits "911" messages at five-minute intervals with nominally 400 milliwatts of power to a commercial satellite network, the Fastfind transmits at fifty-second intervals with nominally 5 watts of power to a government-run, dedicated Search and Rescue satellite network (LEOSAR and GEOSAR). In addition, the Fastfind broadcasts a secondary signal on the 121.5 MHz internationally recognized aviation guard channel. When overflying aircraft or SAR teams get close they can "home in" on this signal, using direction finding techniques, even in situations that may prevent the user from acquiring a GPS fix.
Are these important differences? Both the transmit interval and transmit power affect the reliability of message reception. As neither SPOT nor traditional PLB's have the ability to receive an acknowledgment signal indicating that its message has been received by the satellite, all these devices are dependent on transmitting their "help" message repeatedly and with sufficient power to achieve a high probability of reception by the satellite. In open terrain with a clear sky view, it's not likely much of an issue. In a heavily forested slot canyon...well, I'd want as much power as I could get.
To achieve the functionality of a traditional PLB in such a small, light package, the Fastfind does make some compromises. First, as mentioned above, it is a single-purpose device and lacks the non-emergency communications features of SPOT. However, it doesn't require a paid service subscription like SPOT, which is a plus. However, even compared with other larger, heavier 406 MHz PLB's, the Fastfind has some limitations.
To achieve its small size and weight, a proprietary battery pack is used, limiting the transmit time once activated to 24 hours, rather than the more common 48 hours of other PLBs. Also, the battery is rated for a five-year shelf life, after which it must be sent to a McMurdo dealer for replacement.
The Fastfind itself will not float, but is claimed to be waterproof to ten meters for short periods. For marine use, this could be an important limitation, though McMurdo offers a floating neoprene case for the unit. For backpackers, floatation is likely not a big issue.
To activate the unit, a one-time-use protective cover must be removed and a coiled antenna deployed. Tearing off the cover prevents it from being securely attached again. After activation, the Fastfind can be used again, but it requires dealer service to affix a new cover.
|The Fastfind is activated by pulling the orange tab to the right, tearing off the cover, unfurling the coiled antenna, and pressing the "ON" button.|
A lower-cost version, the Fastfind 200, is available without GPS for those who value initial cost more than being able to be located quickly and precisely in an emergency. Though in all seriousness, GPS capability is one of the best features of the current generation of PLBs and should not be lightly dismissed.
The personal signaling device market now offers products that were unheard of two years ago. In another two years, we will likely see further size and weight reduction, as well as integration of more advanced messaging features like text messaging and two-way communications. In deciding between a "messenger" like SPOT or a PLB like the Fastfind, the prospective buyer must weigh costs, features, and reliability in an emergency. If that's too much to consider, it may come down to which company spokesman you prefer - Les Stroud for SPOT, or Bear Grylls for Fastfind.
|Water Resistance||10 meters|
|Floatation||Not without optional neoprene case|
|Battery||5 year, 6V lithium, dealer serviced|
|Transmit Time||24 hours|
|Size (depth x width x length)||1.34 x 1.85 x 4.17 in (34 x 47 x 106 mm)|
|Claimed Weight||5.3 oz (150 g)|
|Registration||Must register with relevant national authority|