Self Help

A new, portable search-and-rescue beacon may save dozens of lives—and cause dozens of headaches

    Photo: Photo illustration by Susan Boylan

What Say You?

Would you carry a personal locator beacon into the wilderness? Join the discussion.

So the unthinkable has finally happened. Thirty miles from the trailhead, you're stuck at the bottom of a ravine with a compound fracture and a half-eaten pouch of Gu. Your cell phone is useless—no signal. Even if you could dial 911, you'd have trouble directing anyone to the cliff you just fell off, because you forgot your GPS. What you need is a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), a device that allows rescuers to follow digital bread crumbs right to your shattered femur.

After a summer that began with grim, nationally televised search-and-rescue missions on Mount Rainier and Mount Hood, it's a cinch that plenty of American gear buyers will want the things. But they'll have to wait: Although the devices have been available in Alaska, Canada, Australia, and Europe since the early 1990s, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission won't officially approve them for use in the Lower 48 until the middle 2003. Until then—assuming you're the early-adopter techno type—your only option is to bring one across the border from Canada, swearing to use it only in "grave and imminent danger.Ó"
PLBs administered by the Air Force, Coast Guard, NASA, and the NOAA are scheduled to come online next summer, and when they do they'll be able to locate you within 100 meters. Once you flip the switch, the new $500, 1.2-pound locator beacon will bounce a registered signal, used to determine your name and emergency contact info, off satellites to a government-run mission control center in Suitland, Maryland, which will then alert the nearest rescue squad.

They're definitely effective: A pilot PLB program started in Alaska in 1994 is credited with more than 200 saved lives. "If your snowmobile breaks down 30 miles from home and it's 20 below, you're in a lot of trouble," says Paul Hardin, vice-president of sales and marketing for ACR, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based PLB manufacturer. "With a PLB, you're home eating dinner that night."

Even so, the devices worry search-and-rescue pros, who see a lot of room for abuse. The trouble caused by PLB false alarms "is going to be tragic," says Ken Phillips, rescue chief for Grand Canyon National Park. "We're going to put a lot of rescuers in danger chasing down nonemergency alerts." Which means if you've only got a blister, think twice before flipping that switch.

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