Personal Locator Beacons
Taking the search out of search and rescue
Over the river and through the woods
Actually my husband bought me a (Personal Locator Beacon) PLB for our anniversary he says he doesn’t want to lose me after ten great years together. (Isn’t that romantic?) So I thought I’d share with you what I’ve learned about this amazing little life saving device…the lifeline you take with you wherever you go.As of July 1, 2003, it became legal to purchase a 406 MHz PLB in the U.S., a lifesaving device that's been available elsewhere in the world for many years. Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are smaller versions of EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacons). A little bigger than a Blackberry and weighing 10 to 13 ounces, they can be carried by anyone going anywhere they may need rescue boaters, fishermen, hikers, skiers, campers, outdoor adventurers, even pilots flying over remote regions. It's really not about survival any more. It's about swift recovery.
There are three types of beacons used to transmit distress signals, EPIRBs (for maritime use), ELTs (for aviation use), and PLBs (previously used mainly for land-based applications but now applicable to water-based usage as well). Unlike EPIRBs which are registered to a vessel and transmit that vessel’s information, PLBs are registered to the owner and stay with the owner wherever he or she goes. This makes them ideal for adventurers who go into remote areas, individuals who sail on other people’s boats, delivery boat skippers who need to bring all their own safety gear with them, and just about everybody else. (Okay, not for grandma living in the Florida retirement community.)
Like the new generations of EPIRBs, PLBs transmit primarily on the 406 MHz system to locate the vicinity of the person in distress and have a built-in, low-power 121.5 MHz beacon that allows rescuers to home in on the signal once they are within range. In the two decades since the global 406 MHz satellite system was launched and EPIRBs became available, more than 14,000 people have been rescued, one-third of them in the US. Chances are PLBs will increase that number dramatically.
Some PLBs have GPS units integrated into the distress signal, which pinpoints your location to within a 100-yard zone, about the size of a football field. With time always the critical element in a search and rescue operation (SAR), this could mean the difference between life and death.
The cost of a PLB is about $600 without GPS and up to $1,000 for units with built-in GPS. They are waterproof and they float. In most units, the signal transmits for 24 continuous hours (EPIRBs emit a continuous signal for 48 hours).
But how does it work?
PLBs can be detected from anywhere in the world by the global satellites known as COSPAS-SARSAT. This is a search and rescue (SAR) system that uses
These satellites, along with a network of ground stations and the U.S. Mission Control Center
When a beacon is activated, it transmits a digital 406-MHz signal to the constellation of satellites. The signal, with its digitally encoded unique identifier, is then relayed to a ground station which processes the signal and computes an accurate location for the beacon. Depending on where the signal is coming from on earth, the beacon activation can be detected within a few minutes but it can take up to 45 minutes to calculate a position. PLBs with GPS greatly reduce this time frame but still need to acquire satellites when switched on. That is why some users interface their PLBs with an onboard GPS system just before they take on a dangerous mission so the unit can send reasonably accurate GPS coordinates as soon as it is activated if need be…no need to acquire satellite signals for the first transmission.
Once the ground station has calculated a position, it transmits the alert to the
PLB registration and false alerts
|Chain of rescue equipment deployment|
|1)||VHF radio:||Best means by which to alert as many vessels and authorities in your area as possible, provide as much detail as possible, and keep them informed as the situation progresses|
|2)||Cell phone:||Though reception can be spotty, it provides one on one communication which always provides more details about the situation than a passive signal|
|3)||DSC:||Emergency alert system transmits your position to every vessel within listening distance|
|4)||PLB:||Transmits a global signal which activates an SAR mission for an individual|
|5)||EPIRB:||Transmits a global signal which activates an SAR mission for a vessel|
To register your PLB, go to https://beaconregistration.noaa.gov/rgdb/and follow the simple instructions to register it online. Registration is free and easy. You will need the unique number assigned to your PLB as well as manufacturer, model number, and serial number. You will also need to provide multiple phone numbers for two contacts who can be called if your PLB sends a signal. If you would rather mail in the form, you can download a pdf here.
By the way, registration is only good for two years. NOAA sends an email or fax reminder before the expiration date. If you buy a previously owned PLB, you must re-register it immediately even if the previous registration has not expired. It’s for your own good, so don’t delay.NOAA will accept registration for a PLB by non-U.S. resident provided it is a U.S. legal PLB with a U.S. country code. However, NOAA recommends registering your PLB with the country in which you are most likely to use it. This can be a problem with a U.S PLB since the U.S. has proprietary requirements for PLBs that may not conform to other country's requirements. Check with the manufacturer to see if the U.S. PLB can be modified. The US will not register a PLB with a non-US country code. (By the way, the same applies to VHF radios. Different countries use different frequencies for emergency and working channels.)
The ACR unit I have requires the operator to be outside, to place the antenna at exactly the right angle (it clicks into place), to make sure the area where the GPS transmitter resides is unobstructed (even by water), and to hold two buttons down simultaneously for 1-5 seconds to activate the alert; the test sequence requires pressing one button at a time for a different length of time than an actual activation. That cuts down on false alarms, but unless you know how to activate it, it won't do any good. I must say, the sequence of beeps and lights that tells you it is working properly is not easy to follow. I really had to concentrate (and I am not blond)!
One of the PLBs available in the US was taken off the market last year when the units were found to function less than adequately. When the ACR unit was tested it performed flawlessly. It pays to do your homework before buying.
P.S. I am going to get my husband a defibrillator for his next birthday. I don’t want to lose him either!
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