AeroToxic Links


 A Personal Locator Beacon Could Save Your Life

Published: July 5, 2007

AS much as Paul Hardin wants you to buy his products, he hopes you never have to use them. That’s because more than half of the people who do turn on his outdoor rescue devices “are at the point of death,” he said, and are otherwise out of options.

The products, called personal locator beacons, “are really devices of last resort,” said Mr. Hardin, vice president for sales and marketing for A.C.R. Electronics, a leading manufacturer of the beacons, which give lost hikers or stranded climbers a way to alert search-and-rescue teams at the push of a button.

After years of being used by private pilots and boaters, the beacons were approved by the Federal Communications Commission for use on land in 2003. But until recently, they have not sold well. The recent spike in demand followed two fatal headline-making events in Oregon last year: the deaths of three climbers on Mount Hood and the death of James Kim, who left his stranded family in the frigid, rugged mountains of southern Oregon to seek help on foot.

Even with the increased demand, there were only 18,006 of the devices registered in the United States at the end of last year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which administers the rescue program.

The primary reason is price. A.C.R.’s models cost $550 to $650.

Another reason is weight — they are generally 10 to 14 ounces. That doesn’t sound like much, but backpackers and climbers are always looking for ways to carry less weight. “Weight is a big issue for exactly the kinds of people P.L.B.’s are meant for,” said Doug Ritter, publisher of Equipped to Survive, a Web site that features product reviews and advice on outdoor survival equipment.

When activated, the personal locator beacon emits a 406-MHz radio signal that is picked up by one of 12 satellites operated by the international Cospas-Sarsat search-and-rescue system. The signal carries a code that identifies its owner and, depending on the completeness of the required registration, the owner’s emergency contact information and the expected location.

Older or less-expensive personal locator beacons use Doppler radar to determine the user’s location. Newer, costlier models include Global Positioning System technology, which pinpoints the user’s location faster and more accurately.

Once the device is triggered, the signal is repeatedly transferred to various agencies until it gets to the team of potential rescuers. The signal is sent from Cospas-Sarsat to N.O.A.A., which alerts the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, which in turn alerts state and local rescue personnel — a park ranger or sheriff’s office, for example — as well as the user’s emergency contact.

That sounds like a long process, but on average rescues using Doppler radar are started in less than 90 minutes. If the beacon is equipped with G.P.S., it takes just 4 to 17 minutes, according to Mr. Hardin of A.C.R.

It is important for device owners to fill out registration forms as completely as possible, Mr. Hardin said. Glitches can occur. “If G.P.S. doesn’t acquire and Doppler doesn’t work, but you did a good job with the registration, they can still find you.” Adding your itinerary in the comments section is a good idea, he added. “At least then they have a general idea where you are.”

Adventurers in trouble are advised to try a cellphone first. But when a cellphone signal can’t be obtained — a common situation in remote areas — the beacon comes into play. Advocates say the locators are vastly more reliable than satellite phones, which cost far more than the beacon.

A.C.R., based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says it sells more than half of the devices used in the United States. Two other companies make most of the rest: McMurdo, a British company, and Microwave Monolithics, which is owned by the same British company, Cobham, that owns A.C.R.

A.C.R. makes two models. The TerraFix comes with or without an internal G.P.S. unit, but either can be hooked up to a separate G.P.S. device. It is 5.7 inches long, slightly more than 3 inches wide, and 1.74 inches thick. It weighs 12 ounces. Like all personal locator beacons, it runs on factory-installed lithium batteries that must be replaced by a certified dealer within five years. Outdoor supply stores, like R.E.I., L. L. Bean, and Bass Pro Shops, sell them for about $450. The TerraFix with an internal G.P.S. unit costs about $100 more. A.C.R.’s newest model, the MicroFix, weighs 10 ounces and comes equipped with G.P.S. It is 5.85 inches long, 2.21 inches wide, and 1.4 inches thick. It costs about $650.

Both models have a battery life of more than 24 hours at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit and both are waterproof and will float if dropped in water.

McMurdo’s products are roughly comparable to A.C.R.’s, though the companies quibble over some details such as battery life. For instance, McMurdo’s top model is slightly lighter than A.C.R.’s when it includes batteries that are rated to minus 4 degrees, but with hardier batteries rated to minus 40 degrees, that model weighs a fairly hefty 14 ounces. On its Web site, McMurdo lists just one American retailer, Revere Supply of Jacksonville, Fla.

Microwave Monolithics has historically sold its products only to government agencies, but it is preparing to make them available to the public.

It would seem logical that one way to get around the high cost of personal locator beacons would be to rent them, but so far, the market for rentals is tiny. Kevin Stoltz, who operates the online P.L.B. Rentals as a sideline, said he averages about 10 rentals a week.

“It’s not where we think it should be,” he said. But just as sales have taken off in the last year, there has been an increase in rentals as well. A year or so ago, he was renting just one or two a week. “It’s increasing slowly but steadily,” he said. The cost is $59 a week for A.C.R.’s TerraFix, and $69 for the MicroFix.

For now, Mr. Stoltz makes the devices available only through the Web, at, but he is working with R.E.I. on a pilot program to rent them through that retailer’s stores.

Of course, with increased use of personal locator beacons has come an increase in the number of people rescued. In 2004, the first full year in use, there were just four. Last year, there were 35 people rescued from 22 activations.

One of them was a 47-year-old woman from New Jersey, a novice climber, who fell and seriously injured her head in June 2006 at the Brian Head ski resort in Utah while climbing with her family. According to news reports, her brother, who is a doctor and an experienced climber, activated his beacon and she was quickly rescued by helicopter.

While the beacons have saved lives and made search-and-rescue operations easier and safer, they have generated controversy. Some critics — many of them rescue and survival experts — complain that the devices encourage people to be careless, knowing that if they get into trouble, they could be saved at the push of a button.

Although much of the criticism has waned as the beacons have proved helpful, there have been some false alarms and incidents of careless use. “P.L.B.’s shouldn’t be used as a tool for getting lost,” said Charley Shimanski, vice president of the Mountain Rescue Association. “They are a valuable tool, but they shouldn’t be used as a substitute for common sense.”