I once was lost, but now am found….
There has been a rash of recent stories in the press of people lost in the wilderness and dying. The most publicized of these has been the loss on Mount Hood of Kelly James and Brian Hall of Dallas, and Jerry Cooke of Brooklyn. As of this writing, only the body of Kelly James had been found. It is not our intention here to discuss cold-weather techniques or survival in snow conditions, nor is it our intention to critique the performance of those who lost their lives in these incidents. Rather, it is to discuss the importance of people being able to locate you when you are in distress. We don’t really care (until after the fact, so that someone can learn from your mistakes) how you got into trouble. We are interested in getting you out of it.
When you get into trouble there are two primary things you need to do in order to be rescued. The first is to let someone know you are in trouble. The second is to let someone know where you are. Telephones and cell phones are a good choice in many cases (such as our heart attack incident), assuming you have a good signal and know whom to call and where you are. Satellite phones can also be a good choice, as they will often work in places where there is no cellular coverage. But for many emergencies our vote goes to personal locator beacons, which we previously discussed in the October 2003 and December 2005 issues of ÆGIS. Recent incidents indicate that it is time to re-visit the subject again.
Let us start by stating that the COPAS-SARSAT satellite system (http://www.cospas-sarsat.org/) saves lives. According to NOAA, as of5 January 2007over 20,300 people worldwide have been rescued using the COPAS-SARSAT system since 1982, with 5,397 of these being in theUnited States. Last year alone, 37 people in theUnited Stateswere rescued because they used their personal locator beacons (the rest of the 272 rescued last year in theU.S.because of the COPAS-SARSAT system were aviation- or maritime-related).
So, what is involved in using a personal locator beacon?
For a start, you need to have one with you during an emergency. For many, the need for a PLB will be sporadic at best, and the wisest choice might be to rent one when needed. Liferaftrental.com will let you have a GPS equipped PLB for $39, plus a $1.90 per day rental charge, and plbrentals.com will rent you one for $59 per week. This is extremely reasonable, especially if you need to use it!
If you have a more constant need for a PLB – perhaps you hike regularly, or travel by car outside of major metropolitan areas – it might make more sense to buy a unit. There are quite a lot of choices, at a wide range of prices.
We ourselves use the high-reliability Microwave Monolithics’ MicroPLB GX (http://www.micro-mono.com), which at 1.1″ X 2.4″ X 5.9″ is about 15 cubic inches and weighs in at about 10 ounces, runs for 48 hours at -40 C (class 2), and has a number of virtues that we feel justify its $1,700 price tag.
Realistically, however, could comfortably make do with one of the excellent 24 hour Class 1 (-4 C) GPS units from ACR (30 cubic inches, 12 ounces, list price 883, street price $550 http://www.acrplb.com/) or McMurdo Pains Wessex (38 cubic inches, 11 ounces, list price $650, street price $550 (http://www.mcmurdo.co.uk/products/product.html?product_type=2&product_s ector=4&product=47). These take up some about 30 to 38 cubic inches and weighs in at about 12 ounces, and have a street price tag of $550 (liferaftrental.com will sell you one that is as good as new for substantially less).
24 hours is more than enough unless you are adrift at sea, or stuck in a hole and need to wait for a low earth orbit satellite to pass overhead.
While we certainly hope that none of our readers ever find themselves in a situation where a PLB is needed, we also hope that if you do, one will be near at hand.