Space age pocket protectors go mainstream

Personal Locator Beacons: Lifesaving dream or the next false alarm nightmare?

     What would be the impact on public safety agencies if community members could purchase pocket-sized, wireless emergency systems to transmit calls for help to orbiting satellites with the user's identification and location — all with the simple touch of a button? This may sound like some far-off fantasy, but the potential for anyone to equip themselves with celestial panic buttons is already here. Welcome to the age of Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs).

     Following a nine-year pilot program in the Alaskan wilderness, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted nationwide use of the 406-MHz frequency for PLBs on July 1, 2003. Based upon the same technology as the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) and the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT), the PLB is designed for personal use rather than systems installed on ships or airplanes. It utilizes embedded location information gleaned from the nation's network of 29 satellites collectively known as the Global Position System (GPS).

     Since PLBs have only been on the national market for about five years, it is too soon to tell the potential impact on local law enforcement agencies. During legitimate search and rescue (SAR) operations, PLBs will narrow search areas and result in quicker rescues, but will their growing popularity result in an increased number of false alerts or improper uses? If a PLB activation is indeed false or is used to report a non-life-threatening incident, who pays for police responses and for wasting limited local, state and federal SAR resources? No matter how this issue unfolds, there is a good chance PLB calls for service are in the not-too-distant future for public safety agencies.

Predicting the impact

     Distress radio beacon alerts may soon creep their way from obscurity into America's police vernacular. But as of now, law enforcement's awareness of wireless emergency device response protocols is limited at best. If your agency receives a PLB activation tomorrow, will you be prepared? Do you have policies in place to deal with this call type? Is your agency properly equipped to respond? Most importantly, will your staff believe that an incoming call from the United States Coast Guard or Air Force is actually a legitimate request for service that must be handled immediately?

     The potential public safety impact of PLBs is difficult to forecast. According to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, there were 63 non-military PLB activations (six of which were legitimate distress alerts) in the three years after the PLB program went nationwide in 2003. This low number of alerts may be short-lived as PLB popularity grows.

Price down, popularity up

     The pocket-sized PLB was designed with the back country enthusiast in mind, such as hikers, hunters and fishermen, and for people who work or live in the wilderness. Clearly, the intended market did not include urbanites or casual users.

     The first PLB delivered to the national market cost nearly $1,000. At that price, a PLB would only be considered by the serious outdoor adventurer. Now, with growing market competition, demand and availability, the 2003 unit costing $1,000 now retails for $549 with integrated GPS, dispelling one assumption that high costs due to technical requirements would keep the number of users low. Other PLBs can be found on eBay with a starting bid of $199. Declining prices may be directly responsible for the recent increase in PLB registrations.

     According to National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Corps Lt. Jeffrey Shoup, operations support officer at the U.S. Mission Control Center (USMCC), registrations of PLBs are on the rise and there is no sign of a sales slump on the horizon. "We average 300 PLB registrations per month during the winter and 600 per month during the summer," he says. "Our busiest month thus far was October 2006 when 813 PLBs were registered with NOAA either online, via fax or by mail."

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