PERSONAL LOCATOR BEACONS—HELP FROM ABOVE
June 19, 2003 — When Aron Ralston set out for a day’s worth of hiking and climbing near Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah, he never realized that Saturday, April 26, 2003, would be the day that forever changed his life. A day that would challenge his desire to live and eventually put him on the front of newspapers and television news programs around the world. (Click NOAA image for larger view of Cospas-Sarsat system overview.)
day Ralston, 27, of Aspen, Colo., had set off for Blue John Canyon —
a remote corner of the state far from the reach of people and even cell
phones, for that matter. After spending some time climbing through the
canyon, he made a quick maneuver around a narrow slot. There, he put his
right hand on the side of a boulder, that suddenly shifted, pinning his
hand. Ralston was trapped. After several unsuccessful attempts to move
the boulder and squeeze his hand free, he tried some of the ropes, anchors
and other equipment in his pack. Tragically, the boulder just would not
Using his pocketknife, Ralston proceeded to free himself in the only way he could — by severing his crushed arm. Amazingly, once free, he then rappelled down 60-75 feet to the canyon floor and walked 4 to 5 miles before he ran into a couple of tourists from Holland, who helped him wave down a rescue helicopter that was searching above.
Ralston’s story is certainly one that demonstrates the courage of
the human spirit, it is nevertheless an unfortunate one that may have
been avoided altogether with a little help from NOAA.
how it works: NOAA
operates a series of environmental (POES)
and geostationary operational environmental (GOES)
satellites that detect
and locate aviators, mariners and land-based users in distress. These
satellites, along with
a network of ground stations and the U.S.
Mission Control Center in Suitland, Md., are part of the Cospas-Sarsat
system, whose mission is to relay distress signals to the international
SAR community. (Click NOAA image for larger view of PLBs from
Once the ground station has calculated a position, it transmits the alert to the NOAA U.S. Mission Control Center in Suitland, Md. The USMCC combines this information with other satellite receptions (from other ground stations and MCCs), determines who is in distress based on the registration information decoded from the digital 406 MHz signal and then generates an alert message. This alert is then transmitted to the appropriate Rescue Coordination Center based on the beacon's geographic location and/or identification.
After the Rescue Coordination Center is alerted, it begins the actual search and rescue operation. In the United States, these rescue centers are operated by the U.S. Coast Guard for incidents at sea, and by the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Langley AFB (located in Virginia) for incidents on land — including all PLB alerts. In the case of a properly registered PLB, which is required by law to be registered with NOAA’s SARSAT Office, the RCC telephones the beacon's owner and/or emergency contact. If the RCC cannot determine that the signal is a false alert, it dispatches SAR teams to locate the aircraft, vessel and/or individual in distress. These SAR forces use planes, helicopters, and search parties to find the person(s) in distress and bring them to safety.
Generally, a beacon activation can be detected by GOES and an alert generated and sent to the RCC in a matter of minutes. In the time that the RCC is telephoning the beacon owner or emergency point of contact and preparing the SAR teams, a position can be calculated and processed from a POES in under 45 minutes, depending on one’s location on Earth. That means that for Aron Ralston, a SAR team could have been on the scene and helping to free him from the 800-pound boulder in, perhaps, just over an hour. Not only would Ralston have received proper medical attention, but he never would have had to face the gruesome decision he so unfortunately had to make.
Versus Cell Phone
success of cell-phones there are limitations, not the least of which is
coverage. For outdoor enthusiasts, this has often presented a problem
should they ever find themselves in harm’s way in wilderness areas.
PLBs, on the other hand, are able to be detected from anywhere in the
world — thanks to the global coverage of the Cospas-Sarsat satellites.
The cost for PLBs will be, on average, slightly more than a top-of-the-line cell-phone. Most PLB manufacturers will be selling these beacons at or near the $500 range. Those with GPS capabilities will cost slightly more.
Despite the many advantages to PLBs, these beacons should only be looked upon as a means to compliment cell-phones. Indeed, most SAR authorities actually prefer users try their cell-phones first in a distress situation and call "911." The reason given: because anytime an individual is able to speak directly to a 911-operator the better. A 911-operator is able to assess the situation almost immediately. They can determine the extent of the distress, if any injuries have occurred, how many people are in the party, what the terrain and weather conditions are like, etc. All of this can then be used by the operator to dispatch the appropriate emergency response. In the case of a PLB, SAR forces are only able to be alerted to a potential distress — often without direct communication back to the individual. Usually, the RCC reach an emergency point of contact only — and that’s if the PLB is properly registered.
Registration and False Alerts
Nevertheless, SAR teams do come upon falsely activated beacons. The manpower and cost of responding to false alerts are extremely high and are a significant burden to SAR resources nationwide. To avoid false alerts, NOAA encourages that all beacon owners learn to properly operate and test their beacon and to follow the manufacturer's recommendations carefully. Because all PLBs require a manual activation, it takes some effort to accidentally activate a PLB. Still, accidents and activations do occur. Should a user mistakenly activate their PLB, the user has about 50-seconds to turn off the beacon before the distress signal goes out. If that 50-second window has passed, promptly shut-off the beacon and contact the state search and rescue authority — which is usually the State Police or an officially designated agency. Or you may contact the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (toll-free) at: 1-800-851-3051.
PLB Pilot Program
Its anticipated that these same advantages will ultimately hold true for outdoor enthusiasts and wilderness adventurers throughout the contiguous 48 states. Certainly, NOAA and its Cospas-Sarsat partner agencies are excited to introduce the PLB technology to the general public on July 1, 2003.
PLB News Conference
The scouts will be the first Americans to use PLBs during a July 1 demonstration in Waterbury, Vt. in which the scouts will essentially “get lost.” On that day, when PLBs also become available commercially across the United States, Vermont will be the first state in the nation to have an active PLB system. Vermont was selected because of its dense forest and mountain range, coupled with a high population of tourists who hike, ski and contribute to about 30 missing-persons rescue missions in the state annually. The July 1 demonstration will be a joint venture with the USMCC, the AFRCC, the Vermont State Search and Rescue Coordinator (Vermont State Police), the Vermont Civil Air Patrol and the Boy Scouts.
The introduction of PLBs provide a tremendous resource for protecting the lives of outdoor enthusiasts that was unthinkable prior to the Space Age. With a 406 MHz PLB, search and rescue authorities will enhance upon their ability to locate those in distress anywhere in the world at anytime and in most conditions. Truly, these beacons—and the Cospas-Sarsat system—are helping to take the “search” out of search and rescue.
HIKERS AND OUTDOOR ADVENTURERS TO HAVE SAME SATELLITE PROTECTION AS PILOTS AND MARINERS; NOAA AND ITS PARTNERS CELEBRATE 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF INTERNATIONAL SEARCH AND RESCUE SATELLITE AIDED TRACKING PROGRAM