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?

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