Space age pocket protectors go mainstream

     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."

     In 2006, there were almost 2,000 more PLB registrations than the previous year. Soon PLBs may outpace registrations for EPIRBs and ELTs combined, sparking a shift in the focus of radio beacon uses from protecting things — specifically aircraft and vessels — to safeguarding individuals of all types, not just aviators and mariners.

Change in intended uses

     When the FCC amended Part 95 of the commission's rules to authorize PLB use on the international earth-to-space emergency rescue frequency in 2002, the commission's intentions were clear. The 406-MHz PLB was primarily intended to provide a distress and alerting capacity for use by the general public in life-threatening situations in remote environments after all other means of notifying SAR responders had been exhausted. That said, there is nothing to prevent PLB users from activating their radio beacon in an urban environment or for less than a life-threatening condition, a possibility that NOAA acknowledges.

     "What is to stop a person from having a flat tire and then using the PLB to seek help?" asks the NOAA Web site. The posted answer: Unfortunately, nothing.

     If people feel they are in distress, there is nothing to prevent them from activating their PLBs. However, users should be aware the individuals responding to the distress alerts will be a dedicated rescue response and not an auto mechanic. As such, the user should rely on an emergency roadside assistance service to provide them the correct response. As well, the user should be aware he is wasting valuable rescue resources that also may be pulling the team away from a legitimate distress.

     So what is wrong with putting a PLB in the hands of everyone? "Plenty," says Matt Scharper, Law Enforcement Branch Deputy Chief with the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (OES). "People get into trouble when they exceed their ability to be self-sufficient. In a way, PLBs work against our basic survival instinct; they make people feel invincible. They think they can persevere in the face of extreme danger because help is only a button-click away. PLBs can give weekend warriors a false sense of security because public safety agencies are not always capable of an immediate search and rescue response."

     "PLBs are an awesome tool to assist in the rescue of persons in the wilderness when they are faced with a true, dire emergency," he continues. "Unfortunately, the way PLBs are marketed, there is a chance they will be embraced as a 'yuppie 911 tool' and undermine what the devices were designed for."

     Some companies market the devices as getting a 3-minute SAR response. "But it is impossible to get that kind of a response from any radio beacon," Scharper says. "PLBs were designed with a very small segment of the population in mind. Flooding the market with PLBs means more false alarms, and false alarms could be the undoing of this emergency rescue system."

False alarms

     False alarms have plagued nearly every type of system that generates an alarm to which a response is expected. It looks like PLBs may not be much different than the police experience with EPIRBs, ELTs and conventional electronic security systems.

     First-generation analog radio beacons have had horrific false alarm problems, so much so that first-alert rescue launches are impractical. Of the hundreds of beacon alerts received by the USMCC each day, only one in eight originate from an emergency radio beacon. The rest are generated by radio frequency interference created by such things as pizza ovens, radar installations and automated teller machines. All told, the aged 121.5-MHz system has a 99.9 percent false alarm rate.

     Radio beacons transmitting at 406 MHz offer a much better operating platform by eliminating radio frequency interference and enabling GPS coordinate transmission. On average, 15 to 20 beacon alerts are handled each day. Seventy percent of these newer beacons are properly registered, and 65 percent of the alerts are cleared with a simple telephone call confirming the alert was accidental. But even with these technological innovations, the ratio of false alerts to legitimate rescue requests is staggering. According to Shoup, airplane-based beacons currently have a 99 percent false alert rate while the marine-based counterparts have a false alert rate of 95 percent.

     During the Alaska pilot program, state OES coordinators like Scharper were excited because of the extremely low incidents of false alerts. Unfortunately, the information gleaned during this trial is proving to be not a good indicator of PLB false alerts for the rest of the country. Since 2003, NOAA reports the PLB false alert rate at 76 percent.

     Any discussion of false alarms must be déjà vu for most law enforcement personnel. Statistics show that 10 to 30 percent of all law enforcement calls for service are security alarm related and that 95 to 99 percent of these calls are false. While security alarms are effective in preventing crime, they also waste public resources.

Cost recovery efforts

     A strict interpretation of public policy dictates that a public safety response to a false alarm is a private good. It could be argued that even a legitimate response to a PLB also would be considered a private good. Utilizing this stringent analysis, all responses to such devices, regardless of the ultimate disposition, would be considered a private good, and all related expenses associated with a public safety response would be paid for by the user and not the community-at-large.

     Instituting such a stringent cost recovery program would hold users accountable for their own actions. Unfortunately, such a procedure might also achieve the unintended consequence of users failing to use the devices as designed because of potential financial implications.

Management considerations

     It is difficult to put futures-based concerns at the forefront of police executives' minds when they are busy dealing with the problems of the here and now. PLBs happen to be such an issue for the majority of U.S. law enforcement agencies. Police agencies nationally already are struggling with call volumes and the impact of false alarms on their ability to devote patrol time to those who truly need their services. PLBs may emerge as the next arena where this struggle may be fought, and managers should anticipate the possible impact and plan today.

     While real-world experience with personal locator beacons is extremely limited at present, there are strong operational correlations between distress radio beacons of all types and conventional security systems. Clearly, the potential impact on local law enforcement agencies is significant if PLBs are widely adopted by the American public.

     Failure to properly prepare for this new type of call for service may result in embarrassment to local agencies at best, or injuries sustained or lives lost at worst. Fortunately, there are assistance resources emerging for organizations planning for the future. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense produced a 6-minute training tape on PLBs for state SAR coordinators and first responders in an effort to combat this potential issue. No doubt, others will follow suit.

     Certainly, PLBs will save lives, but how profound will be the issues of false alarms and improper use or abuse? At what price does government support programs such as these if an overwhelming amount of resources are wasted chasing calls that are fictitious in nature or do not report true emergencies? Should individual PLB users shoulder the response costs?

     Under federal law, knowingly and willfully transmitting a hoax distress call via a PLB is a felony and is punishable by prison, a $250,000 fine and restitution to the rescue agency for all costs incurred responding to the distress, but what about that flat tire call? The definition of an "emergency" currently lies in the mind of each individual PLB user unless state or national mandates are established as to when PLBs can be utilized without sanction or local false alarm ordinances are expanded to included emergency wireless devices.

     When conventional security systems first came in vogue in the 1950s, law enforcement embraced this revolutionary crime prevention tool, going so far as to offer alarm system monitoring at many police headquarters. As the years went by, alarm response demands outstripped available resources and the false alarm problem never improved. Now the police revolt against security alarm calls is in full swing; cost-recovery efforts and verified response ordinances are sweeping the nation. Does this foreshadow the future of PLBs, or can astute management of the technology create a win-win for the police and those in need? Only time, and good planning, will tell.

     Commander Tom Chronister is a 24-year veteran of the Oxnard (California) Police Department. He is a graduate of California's P.O.S.T. Law Enforcement Command College Class 39. For more information on Command College, see

Lives saved

     In regions where radio waves don't reach a listening ear and cellular networks are nonexistent, a PLB could very well mean the difference between life and death. Modern distress radio beacons have no equal when it comes to making a last-ditch call for help from remote outposts.

     According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Web site, distress radio beacons have saved 20,300 people worldwide (5,476 in the United States) since its 1982 inception. In 2006, 272 U.S. lives were saved using the Cospas-Sarsat System. During the nine-year Alaska PLB pilot program, more than 300 lives were saved — 54 in 2001 alone.

     "Before the 406-MHz beacon and embedded GPS data was made available to us, search and rescue crews were faced with potential search areas of more than 1,000 square miles," says Allan Knox, Air Force Rescue Coordination Center Search and Rescue Program manager. "With GPS information, search areas are reduced to 1/100th of a square mile, or about 7 acres. That is a huge difference and makes for rescue operations that are timed with a watch instead of a calendar." As the slogan goes, Cospas-Sarsat takes the "search" out of search and rescue.