Ranger Kathryn's Arches

April 11, 2011

Personal Locator Beacons

Fishing for a signal with the PLB receiver

We climbed the only high sand hill nearby and held the signal receiver up, hoping desperately to catch even the faintest audible or LED input as to where our lost person might be. Its antennae were silent. Was it a battery issue in the transmitter? Was the high wind and cubic tons of sand in the air distorting the signal? Or were we just too far away?

18 Search & Rescue trainees from the park service and the local county were practicing finding someone using a PLB — Personal Locator Beacon. The increasing popularity of these devices requires that we know how to conduct a search if a distress call comes. Instructions on my government-issued PLB say that it is my last resort only… not if night is falling and I’m scared, but if life or limb are threatened.

Not a bank robbery. Needed kerchiefs to keep sand out of nose/mouth.

Last year in Canyonlands NP one of these PLBs had 52 activations (!!!) in a short time span — surely suggesting a major emergency requiring heroic rescue efforts. It was nightfall and the location was down on the White Rim, 1000 steep feet and many 4WD miles below the mesa, where jeepers and mountain bikers can get away from it all. A helicopter was summoned and night vision technology was used to locate the man. His life-threatening “emergency”? Burned-out clutch on his motorcycle.

PLBs have become the “yuppie 911.” Rescuers who risk their lives and limbs are not amused.

Found a dinosaur bone at training! Click to enlarge.

Nothing tops the party hiking in the Grand Canyon who activated their beacon three (3) separate times in three days for such emergencies as “drinking water tasted funny,” “running low on water,” “heard a scary sound.” They were physically removed from the Canyon after the third abuse. Unnecessarily mobilizing helicopters for dangerous, lifesaving rescues should disqualify you from ever being allowed to own or carry a PLB.

Grand County, UT, charges $500 to rescue people. Arches National Park currently charges nothing. Do you think PLB abusers should be charged for their rescue, in any location? Should legitimate victims be charged? What deterrent can you think of to keep people from pushing the panic button for idiotic reasons?


  1. I think use certainly depends on the circumstances. It would be hard to judge who a legitimate victim is but abusers should certainly be charged. The party hiking in the Grand Canyon should have been physically removed after the first activation, this would be a good deterrent. I heard at some point of some charges being brought up against them but never heard any results.

    Owning a PLB myself I definitely see the pluses and minuses to them. However, I’ve also educated myself a bit and work for the Park Service so I know when to use it. They can be lifesaving, as mine has been (in Arches NP).

    Comment by Will B. — April 11, 2011 @ 7:37 pm | Reply

  2. I can imagine a good set of ‘life-threatening’ examples where its use is justifieds followed by stiff fines for all other ‘frivolous’ calls.

    Comment by Leroque — April 12, 2011 @ 7:12 am | Reply

  3. $500.00 seems reasonable when you consider the equipment,helicopter,manpower, the risk to life and limb, as you say. If it was a REAL emergency, any reasonable person would be glad to pay the $$. How did you know that it was a dinosaur bone??

    Comment by kathy lewis — April 12, 2011 @ 1:36 pm | Reply

    • Nope. Helicopters cost ten times that, just to take off. That’s a ground rescue only. Fossilized bones have a distinctive texture that is way different from rock; you get to know what it is as you look at and feel and find them. What can I say besides that they’re bony???

      Comment by Kathryn Burke — April 12, 2011 @ 7:18 pm | Reply

  4. I wonder if it would help to require a list of guidelines for all who carry a PLB. Anyone who uses it for any other reason than listed in the guidelines should be charged a fine. What do you think?

    Comment by Lindsey K. — April 14, 2011 @ 11:03 am | Reply

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