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Should Personal Locator Beacons be considered "must have" BC gear?

post #1 of 13
Thread Starter 
Recent discussions of avy beacons and related equipment got me thinking about the "standard" checklist of safety gear. They provoked me into ordering CPR masks for all the family packs. They also made me start wondering if a minimum of two PLBs per group should be considered a "must have" set of BC gear?

Sending someone for help, or fooling with phones/two ways burns time and people power better spent on rescuing someone while they are still possibly alive. Not contacting the emergency response machinery right away potentially delays needed medical help.

If the proverbial shit hits the fan, wouldn't it be better to "pull the trigger" on a PLB and have everyone immediately organized on-site for a search -- with the assumption that the PLB(s) does its job and beckons search and rescue ASAP? Would the lack of two way communication and situation specificity lead to sub-optimal responses? Impact response times?

At about $600-700 each, these are relative budget busters. All things considered, should that matter?

To check out what these are like, see the PLB section here http://www.sarsat.noaa.gov/emerbcns.html and the catalog entries at http://www.backcountry.com/store/gro...r-Beacons.html

I'm not advocating any less focus on training, avy beacons, shovels, probes, first aid kits, etc. Just wondering if PLBs have been overlooked. Or, if not overlooked, why they are not discussed more?
post #2 of 13
An avalanche beacon is only good if you have a partner equipped with basic rescue equipment (shovel, probe) ready to commense a search and rescue with a vital window of 30 minutes...tops. A GPS locator beacon will not transmit a signal from under snow. Even if you could transmit a signal, it would take considerable time to organize a rescue effort. The beacon is merely a locator if you have a clear signal to sattelite. The question should be, is anyone listening? Locator beacons are used in aircraft and some blue water sailing watercraft and of course they are a component of anti-theft devices. As far as I know, no one starts a rescue or search effort unless a call is made that someone is missing.

At this point for backcountry, a locator beacon is like the saying, "If a tree falls in the woods, and there's no one there to hear it, did it make a sound?" In all likelyhood, your distress signal would not be received; and if it was, it would take a long time for a rescue / recovery effort to commence. Assuming you plan to use this in an emergency, IMO it is not a practical substitute for a competent properly equipped partner, except as a body recovery tool.
post #3 of 13
Thread Starter 
Cirquerider, I think you missed my point. I was quite explicit that these would not be a substitute for any standard BC equipment or BC safety practices.

There's a reason I suggested at least a pair - because you are right - if a person with a PLB is buried nothing happens. The bet would be that if you are doing things right, the odds of two (or more) people carrying PLBs being buried at the same time would be reasonably slim (if PLBs were cheaper, the obvious answer would be everyone carries one). And if someone not buried triggers the PLB, in theory you get instant response in terms of firing up search and rescue - exactly as you would with an EPIRB. Plus they have local homing signals as well. Seems to me this removes the issue of dispatching prospective rescuers for a slog out, or having someone potentially spend minutes trying to call out. Take it out, fire it up, and get down to "search mode"...

Here's a snippet fron the NOAA satellite page:

PLBs are portable units that operate much the same as EPIRBs or ELTs. These beacons are designed to be carried by an individual person instead of on a boat or aircraft. Unlike ELTs and some EPIRBs, they can only be activated manually and operate exclusively on 406 MHz. And like EPIRBs and ELTs all PLBs also have a built-in, low-power homing beacon that transmits on 121.5 MHz. This allows rescue forces to home in on a beacon once the 406 MHz satellite system has gotten them "in the ballpark" (about 2-3 miles).Some newer PLBs also allow GPS units to be integrated into the distress signal.This GPS-encoded position dramatically improves the location accuracy down to the 100-meter level…that’s roughly the size of a football field!
WHich brings up two more things:

1) The beacons I was looking at are all GPS equipped...

2) How flinchy are GPS units of this sort these days? Do trees, nearby cliffs, etc. kill 'em?
post #4 of 13
Just curious, have you ever gone geocaching? Fun with GPS. GPS receivers can get you very close to a target, and while subject to interference, are overall pretty accurate. The concept of PLBs is good, but in practicality, you need to be in a situation that allows up to 24 hours for rescue (i.e. not life threatening). For backcountry skiing, a PLB may be valuable in remote areas when a physical injury requires rescue. It is not an option for threats that are immediately dangerous to life. My question is, who is listening for signals, and how do they know how to respond to a backcountry distress signal. It could be anything.

On another note, GM OnStar seems to be a pretty good implementation of this technology in the rescue context. The dispatcher gets basic information about the vehicle condition and can establish voice communications. I think when PLBs become capable of voice communications, then we really have something with potential.
post #5 of 13
No they shouldn't.

I know of some parties that used it for grand traverses - waddington-homathko - rogers pass - bugaboos ; great divide. They used it in case serious shit went down and they life or death. But consider that one party on the W-H had an avvy kill two people and they still never pulled the trigger on the PLB as their partners were already dead and having SAR come in wouldn;t have helped.

Consider that SAR will take 1 hour or more to get in. SOmeone's dead by then. And you should only be pulling out a PLB for life or death.

If i was in serious remote areas I'd either have a VHF radio (if close to repeaters) or a satellite radio.
post #6 of 13
Thread Starter 
LeeLau, I totally hear you. Still, suppose a party is hit by a slide and there is a burial with an unknown likelyhood of survival and clearly no knowledge of the specific medical condition of the victim. What is the difference between calling prior to search initiation via VHF or sat and activating SAR vs triggering a PLB (and let's assume good GPS fix, properly registered, etc. -- resulting in reasonably rapid deployment with arrival in the 1 hour range as you suggest) and then getting right to work? Either approach triggers the SAR machinery, does it not? Are there meaningful differences in response?

I know if someone I was traveling with was buried, I'd want two things to happen ASAP: 1) have every able bodied, trained and equipped person helping in a coordinated search effort, and 2) activate all possible evac and medical machinery - it seems smarter to call them off than to find out they showed up 10 minutes too late.

I confess I'm not a SAR expert by any means, so I'm not arguing with you. Just trying to understand trade offs and reasons.

Oh yeah -- and I extra-hear you on the life and death use only. Everything I've read has emphasized that. Body recovery is not the name of the game...
post #7 of 13
I have never considered taking a PLB when backcountry skiing, but it seems like a very good (but expensive) idea. As everyone has pointed out, the ability of the ski party to immediately and appropriately respond is far more important than anything else, but if you have injured people that need to be evacuated then anything that can speed up that process it certainly a huge benefit.

The question seems to be, "In what percentage of situations would it really help?" It is hard to make a cost/benefit analysis when it is your frozen butt that may be on the line. I guess it really comes down to where you ski and what the kind of rescue rescources would actually respond if you used the PLB. I have always felt that you need the training and equipment to take care of yourself, although I have certainly put myself in many situations where that has not been the case.
post #8 of 13
I think it's a great suggestion but probably too expensive (at this time) for very many groups to get on board.

Nevertheless, Spindrift, I think you're absolutely right about the scenarios. I can think of several situations in which having one of these could help enormously in the overall search.

I don't know about other areas, but Teton County has an outstanding SAR organization. If I found myself surveying the aftermath of a slide and one or more members of my party were buried, I'd want to call in all the cavalry I could in the shortest time possible. Here in the Tetons, that response could very well arrive within an hour and include some of the best-trained rescue people in North America.

The whole question reminds me of a similar debate in the backcountry skiing newsgroups 8-10 years ago. Cell phones were becoming more ubiquitous and *some* people were suggesting that a cell phone could be an important survival/rescue tool in the right circumstances. Others said, rightly, that coverage was unreliable and some people might get a false sense of security by thinking they could call in the troops if things went bad. The "con" camp said that your first responsibility was to make good decisions in the first place and never get yourself into a situation that required someone coming to your rescue. In retrospect, I think the proponents of cell phones were right - it's not perfect, but it's potentially one more way of getting more help as fast as possible.

I think this PLB thing might follow a similar arc.

Good topic.
post #9 of 13
If it's on top of everything else, I don't see how it can be a bad thing.
post #10 of 13
I think it's a good idea.

I think I remember Aron Ralston saying he wishes he had been equipped with one during his life saving amputation episode.
post #11 of 13

Turn off that Cell Phone!

Just a reminder regarding the use of cell phones in the backcountry, as has been discussed on this forum in the past, cell phones that are turned on can screw up a tranceiver search. Leave them off until you need to call someone for help.

post #12 of 13
here's some info you might be interested in. Aceman http://www.equipped.com/faq_plb/?
post #13 of 13
Sorry was skiing. I'm speaking for B.C. - your jurisdiction's SAR practise might be differnet. Triggering a PLB triggers all the SAR machinery. Planes, airdrops - everything. There's no communication with SAR - they have to assume the worst so they bring the kitchen sink. I have a problem with that in that I think it "wastes" scarce SAR resources.

I think a satellite radio accomplishes what PLB's accomplish but allows 2-way communication so that SAR can be better prepared with what they need - rather then everything else.

I hope this explains my views better.
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