Space age pocket protectors go mainstream

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

     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.

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