More Rescues Credited to the Use of Satellite Detectable Locater Beacons

uring a three-day span last month, two separate outdoors enthusiasts ran into life-threatening situations in the wilderness and used Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) in order to survive. Even though the circumstances of each rescue were different, one involved a hiker and the other an ATV rider, their outcomes were very similar – two lives saved.
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FORT LAUDERDALE-FL — During a three-day span last month, two separate outdoors enthusiasts ran into life-threatening situations in the wilderness and used Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) in order to survive.

Even though the circumstances of each rescue were different, one involved a hiker and the other an ATV rider, their outcomes were very similar – two lives saved.

PLBs are proving to be valuable emergency life-saving devices for outdoor activities of all kinds. Since the first of this year, 18 people in eleven incidents have used PLBs to signal for help in the U.S.

“A continued increase in PLB registrations in the U.S. last year indicates a growing popularity and consumer interest in these locator beacons, especially among hunters, campers, hikers, climbers, skiers and boaters,” said Paul Hardin, executive vice president of sales and marketing for ACR Electronics, Inc., a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based manufacturer, which introduced PLB products to the U.S. in 2003.

PLBs, unlike other recently introduced personal tracking gadgets, transmit signals on internationally recognized distress frequencies. The 406 MHz signal is monitored by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking System (SARSAT) detects and locates distress signals. GPS coordinates greatly assist search and rescue crews, and in the event GPS isn't acquired, position can be calculated through Doppler Shift as a reliable backup.

NOAA has reported that in 2007, PLBs assisted in the rescue of 88 people in 38 incidents. In 2006, PLBs assisted in the rescue of 37 people in 22 incidents. PLB registrations in 2007 showed a 66.85 percent increase over the previous years' total. Worldwide, the COSPAS-SARSAT 406 MHz satellite system, which is celebrating 25 years of operation, is credited with rescuing more than 23,000 people since the program's inception in 1982. Of that number, more than 5,000 persons were rescued in the U.S.

James Langston, Search and Rescue (SAR) Program Coordinator for Arizona's Division of Emergency Management, directed the March 18th rescue of the ATV rider in the northwest corner of the state. Langston personally owns a PLB and wants people who venture into the backcountry to know about the usefulness of the beacons. “If we get a call from the RCC (Rescue Coordination Center) about someone being in a life threatening situation, then we respond. If people need help, there's a spirit of cooperation among all the rescue agencies.”

Langston recommends that once victims determine that all means of self-rescue have been attempted and assistance is needed, then they should not hesitate to activate a PLB. “I don't want people to wait until they are on the verge of death to seek help. They need to know that are we (SAR) are probablyalready out looking for them by then,” he said. “That's what the beacons are for. I'd rather they set it off sooner than when they get to the verge of death.”

In the rescue of James Tibbetts, the rider of the four-wheel ATV, his engine quit and left the 62-year-old Las Vegas retiree stranded in remote wilderness at 7,000 feet elevation with snow on the ground. Dusk was approaching and temperatures were dropping. Tibbetts set off his ACR Electronics' MicroFix™ 406 MHz GPS PLB and hiked up to a clearing to call on his cell phone. He reached 911 in St. George, UT and told them, “I'm in the middle of no where and I don't know exactly where I am.”

In the meantime, authorities detected his PLB distress signal, and Langston proceeded to deploy a Mojave County Sheriff's Office SAR helicopter to the GPS coordinates that the beacon had supplied. At the same time, the St. George Police Department also dispatched a helicopter, which was closer to Tibbetts' location. The Mojave County helicopter was told to return to home base because the St. George Police Department was on scene and air lifting Tibbetts out. He returned the next day, repaired his vehicle and drove out.

It was Tibbetts wife, Robin, who made her husband purchase his PLB. “He was retired and going out by himself on the ATV. I told him, ‘You're not going out without one (PLB).' I didn't want him to be out alone on some mountain. He would have been sleeping with the cougars if he didn't have that PLB with him.”

On March 15th just three days before this rescue, John Vaughan and his son, Scott, both experienced hikers from Southern California, activated their PLB during an ill-fated hiking trip in the San Bernardino Mountains, east of Los Angeles. It was a complicated and technical rescue involving severe injuries and 15 ground responders who climbed to 8,500 feet in the middle of the dark, snowy night to carry the victim down on a litter.


Experienced mountain climbers, the Vaughans were on a day hike on Mt. San Gorgonio when the father fell 200 feet through an ice shoot shattering his upper right arm. The 59-year-old physician was in and out of consciousness and unable to walk. Scott Vaughan, 21, immediately called for help on their satellite phone but the transmission kept cutting off. He then activated the ACR Electronics' MicroFixâ„¢ 406 MHz GPS PLB that his father had purchased the month before.

The COSPAS/SARSAT system detected the Vaughan's PLB 406 MHz distress signal and alerted the Air Force RCC, who contacted the family to confirm that they were indeed hiking in the San Bernardino Mountains. When the California Office of Emergency Services received the Air Force's call, they enlisted the assistance of 30 volunteers and first responders to carry out the rescue.

Dr. Vaughan said he had decided a month earlier to purchase an emergency-locating mechanism of some kind because he often hikes alone. His busy medical practice makes it difficult to pair up with other hikers. He went online to research what was available and found that a PLB was what he needed. “For people who backpack, a PLB is an excellent device. In looking at the other devices on the market, I saw that they do not connect up with national government services, like NOAA and the Air Force. After reading reviews, they also showed that they had spotty connections. There is a fair amount of information written up on it.”

In the case of Dr. Vaughan who is recuperating from reconstructive surgery at home in San Diego, he said the PLB was “an outstanding piece of equipment that helped save his life.”

A PLB is a satellite-signaling device of last resort, for use when all other means of self-rescue have been exhausted and where the situation is deemed to be grave and imminent, and the loss of life, limb, eyesight or valuable property will occur without assistance. All beacons must be registered following purchase. Simply go online to www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov.

ACR Electronics, Inc. (www.acrelectronics.com), a Cobham plc Company, designs and manufactures a complete line of safety and survival products including EPIRBs, PLBs, SSAS, AIS, SARTs and safety accessories. The quality systems of this facility have been registered by UL to the ISO 9001:2000 Series Standards. Recognized as the world leader in safety and survival technologies, ACR has provided safety equipment to the aviation and marine industries as well as to the military since 1956.

Quick PLB facts:
>> Works in concert with the COSPAS-SARSAT System. Dedicated global satellite SAR system
>> Serious Life Saving Equipment. Designed to work when all else has failed. Approved to International Standards for life saving equipment.
>> SAR agencies: NOAA, USCG, US Air Force and NASAR (National Association of Search & Rescue)
>> Emergency signals received by two satellite groups: GEOSAR (stationary/provides immediate alert) LEOSAR (provides location/orbits every 100 minutes)
>> User Fee: NONE (tax payer supported system)
>> NO annual subscription fee
>> Three redundant methods of pinpointing location: 406 MHz/Satellite Triangulation, GPS transmission and 121.5 MHz homing frequency
>> Alert notification 50 seconds with GPS; one hour without GPS
>> Lithium batteries with 11-year shelf life
>> Antennas: 1 for GPS and 1 for distress message
>> Cost: $499-$699 (one time cost/no annual subscription or special user fees)

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