Space age pocket protectors go mainstream

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

     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.

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