The Problem With PLBs, ACR, Spot Messenger, Etc.

Post by blogger | March 3, 2010      

Update, March 3. Wow. Rocky Mountain Rescue Group (RMRG) persevered and solved the mystery of the ghost personal locator beacon (PLB) that’s been plaguing them like something from a cheap horror film.

Individuals from RMRG used radio signal locator equipment to try and find the unit, but rather than being left on and relatively stationary, the PLB was frequently turned off or moved around Colorado and thus hard to find. (More, the unit was not registered so the unit’s ID was not associated with any specific individual).

Fortunately, the person triggering the PLB left it on during a doctor’s appointment a short time ago in Boulder, and the ghost busters finally got their guy. Turns out the pesky apparition was a man in his 20s who ostensibly received the PLB for his birthday with a note that said something like, “here is an avy beacon, be safe.” The man never read the back of the box, and was turning the PLB on to emergency broadcast every time he went backcountry skiing. How he passed his partner’s beacon checks is unknown. Perhaps he was so clueless he not only was using a PLB as an avy beacon, but also expecting it to get him dug out from an avalanche with no one else present? More here in Denver Post article.

According to the Denver Post, the unit ended up being triggered nine times over a 12 week period, thus scrambling various law enforcement and SAR teams.

Common sense says this sort of thing will happen more as PLBs end up in broad use, thus rendering the units somwhat useless as SAR teams and other entities end up having to carefully evaluate each alert before fully responding. To prevent their eventual obviation, personal locator beacons need three things they don’t have: Rudimentary texting for two-way communication, mandatory or at least stronger registration requirements, and some sort of warning that the PLB has been triggered and is communicating with authorities. Perhaps a speaker could be built into the unit that loudly proclaims “you have triggered your PLB emergency mode, call for rescue will ensue in 30 seconds, if you triggered this by mistake please turn off your unit NOW – 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 -6…”

Your comments, oh esteemed readers of WildSnow?

Update, January 1, I just got off the phone with rescue expert Dale Atkins. He gave me some alarming factoids about PLBs:
1. Very few people register their PLB, the vast majority of units are NOT registered.
2. Something around 98% of activations are false alarms. This jibes with Wikipedia (not that Wikipedia is the end-all be-all of accuracy, but one has to consider it.)

Original post follows, published Dec 30, 2009:

Dale Atkins and Paul Woodward of Colorado’s Alpine Rescue Team have been floating the following (see excerpt below) around the web. It seems someone (or their children or pet) has been playing around with their ACR personal locator beacon (PLB), or else they’re carrying one with a glitch that causes it to inadvertently activate. This in turn is triggering a search and rescue (SAR) response.

Anyone who knows human nature and the imperfect nature of electronics could have predicted this.

Yep, it was only a matter of time before this sort of thing started happening. So I’ll say it. You get thousands or even hundreds of thousands of “emergency beacons” distributed, and due to false positives their usefulness will diminish or outright die unless you provide some sort of accountability or 2-way communication. At least the Spot Messenger requires an account to even work, so a prankster would have to go to great effort to joke around with a Spot. On the other hand, apparently you can buy an ACR PLB, not register, use it in near total anonymity, and hack around with your ACR all you want if you’re so inclined. That seems patently ridiculous.

For starters, what’s to stop a prankster from triggering an ACR just to see what happens? Or how about innocent experimentation by a curious kid? Or an inquisitive poodle? Without the unit registered, SAR has no way of tracking such things down, and thus no incentive exists for care with activation.

According to ACR you are indeed required by law to register your ACR PLB with SARSAT Beacon Registration (address in the PLB docs), but one has to wonder how many people actually do this, when the unit will function without registration? Apparently that’s the exact scenario that’s happening here in Colorado. Someone has an ACR, it’s getting triggered, but it’s not registered.

Your opinions oh esteemed Wildsnowers? Do those of you who have an ACR do the registration with SARSAT, or do you just buy it and pack it?

Alpine Rescue Team needs your help – PLB false alerts in Berthoud Pass (Colorado) area

Over the past two weeks, the Alpine Rescue Team has been notified of three PLB activations in the Berthoud Pass (Colorado) area between Winter Park and the Jones Pass area. These PLB false alarms have occurred on three different dates, December 14, 23, and 24, and all involve the same PLB.

If anyone has recently started to use – or knows someone who has – a ACR PLB-300 Microfix (RescueFix) and visits the Berthoud Pass area, please contact the Alpine Rescue Team. You can send me a private message or call me directly. Right now there are no violations, penalties, laws broken, etc., however, we would like to talk with you so you can understand how your PLB works and does not work. If you don’t want to talk, at least keep your PLB turned off until you are in an actual life-threatening emergency.

Each detection of the PLB’s signal starts a cascade of rescuers beginning with the US Air Force, the Colorado State Search and Rescue Coordinator, the local sheriff, and finally the local mountain rescue team, which in these cases has been Alpine Rescue Team. Each false alarm requires significant effort and time by many people. On Christmas Eve, rescuers from three different mountain rescue teams spent the afternoon trying to directional find the intermittent signal.

You might be wondering why a PLB is so hard to pinpoint, especially if you have read any advertising or promotional materials about these devices. This unit is not registered so no simple phone call to the owner can be made to verify the alert. Also, this unit is being turned on and off and moved between activations, so the search area cannot be well defined giving a search area up to 10+ miles in radius. When used properly these new digital PLBs can usually be identified and located in minutes.

Again, if you have been in the Berthoud Pass area on these three dates and have an ACR PLB or know someone who has, please contact us via private message, or call Dale Atkins directly at 303.579.7292. There are no legal issues or laws broken; we very much would like to talk with you. As always the services of Alpine Rescue Team are free.


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


113 Responses to “The Problem With PLBs, ACR, Spot Messenger, Etc.”

  1. Kevin L December 30th, 2009 11:22 am

    Hey Lou,

    I hate PLBs with a passion. I can understand the usefulness for tracking an extended trip or mountain guides carrying them for emergencies with clients, but overall I feel they empower people with a false sence of security that leads to more inexperianced people accessing terrain that requires experiance to navigate safely. Where’s the accountability? Before PLBs were commonplace there was still a sense of danger, isolation, and wildness where self reliance, knowledge, and skill was key.

    I started touring alone when I was about 16. My poor parents were always worried sick and took it upon themselves to purchase a first generation Spot
    which they forced to me to carry about, threatening to cease their financial support if didn’t comply. They’d say “We better get at least three OKs or you can forget about new skins for xmas”, and if they didn’t get the messages I’d have to plead in frustrated anger for them to believe that I had indeed pressed the OK button, pointed the thing south and waited ten minutes…

    Anyway, all these years later they still plead with me to carry it when I tour alone, and I usually throw the thing in my pack (always off) and keep it for absolute emergencies… but even then I’d like to think I wouldn’t use it, no matter what happens, that I’d be bold enough to toss the thing aside and die a lonely death in the wild.

    But then again I still send my poor old folks an “OK” message every once in a while, just for shits ang giggles. I know it makes them happy.

  2. Greg in Utah December 30th, 2009 11:42 am

    I’ve never liked the “false sense of security” argument with respect to safety equipment. I’ve heard this used for helmets and seat belts among other things. Although I don’t plan on buying a PLB (cost to benefit just isn’t there for me yet) I do think it is worth evaluating. That said, I must agree that the system clearly needs to be improved before this becomes a viable safety tool.

    I think Kevin brought up what could be an interesting future blog post, that of touring alone. Like Kevin, as soon as a I could drive I ended touring alone some of the time. 14 years later I very rarely tour with a partner. I think there are pros and cons to being solo in the BC. It could make for some interesting discussion. (I suspect a few people will call Kevin and me mean names for this practice. I suspect this because people have already said I’m stupid for skiing alone)

  3. matt December 30th, 2009 1:00 pm

    You can say what you want about using the spot and the false sense of security. I fundamentally agree with most of these arguments. My argument would be for the lives you are putting at risk while attempting to locate your body. We have seen it many times and already this year on mount hood. Capable climbers getting in trouble high on the mountain. Regardless of their wishes the search begins, many times in bad weather and hazardous conditions. Having a locator (which I understand are available to rent for $5 a day) would expedite the search and rescue while saving thousands in tax dollars.
    With new technology comes responsibility and accountability. I don’t carry the SPOT for my own security. I carry it for my family and the rescuers who don’t deserve to be hunting blindly for my frozen body. When I push the HELP button the custom message will read “I was prepared, solo and did everything I could get to out of the woods. Tell my wife she can come and drag my body from this location in the spring when it is convenient to do so.”
    I think it is great you guys ski alone and hope you continue to be safe and have great times enjoying the outdoors.

  4. byates1 December 30th, 2009 1:59 pm

    i got one, like an avy beacon, hope to never use it

    i got it because i ski tour alone, in remote wilderness, a lot

    i registered when i got it , and it seemed like i had to, to get it to activate. if someone is fvking around with one of those willy-nilly, they deserve fines, punches to the face, etc..

    i had mine when i fell 70+ feet down steep rock, on skis, broke ribs, severed an artery, major tendon in my hand, and generally got the shit kicked out of me. i got out alone, no way are you hearing about me on the news unless absolutely necessary

    so, in conclusion, people are a disappointment..

  5. randy December 30th, 2009 3:12 pm

    sounds like someone is mistakenly using PLB as avy beacon.

  6. Tony December 30th, 2009 3:35 pm

    why lump the spot in with the acr, when, as you say, it is more accountable because you have to register for it to work? On top of that, when you do trigger a 911, they will call the people on your contact list to double check that you are actually out somewhere, again reducing the possibility of a false positive.

    Sure there might be other issues, with people using it unnecessarily, just like cell phones, but your article & title does the spot a dis-service within the context of the problem that the article discusses.

    Kevin, get off your high horse and think a little.
    I carry my spot mostly for the exact opposite situation. I might be very late, or forced to bivy for whatever reason – gear failure, error on my part, unexpected weather/avalanche conditions – perfectly safe & healthy, just way late, relying on my skills, experience, navigation to get out on my own. In that case I’d send an OK message to let people know I’m OK and DON’T send out sar.

    Your point that carrying a spot gives false sense of security is totally inaccurate with me & others that I know using the device. I have never made a decision to go somewhere because I have the spot where I would not go without it. Same with avalanche beacons – if the fact that you do or don’t have a beacon factors into the decision of whether to ski a particular slope, you’re doing it wrong. Just because your imagination or experience is too limited to understand that people can use this stuff responsibly and rationally does not entitle you to make bs blanket generalizations.

    If your reasoning here is indicative of how your mind works, perhaps you should be carrying and using that spot a little more – I’d guess you’re gonna need it some time. The wilderness tends to exact its own punishment on arrogance.

    matt & byates1 – right on.

  7. OMR December 30th, 2009 4:00 pm

    Kevin, do mom and dad still supply your skins? Hook me up.

  8. Jonathan Shefftz December 30th, 2009 4:58 pm

    “According to ACR you are indeed required by law to register your ACR PLB with SARSAT Beacon Registration (address in the PLB docs), but one has to wonder how many people actually do this, when the unit will function without registration?”
    – My estimate of how many people register is every single PLB owner . . . except for this one person causing the current problem. Registration is free and provides information about the owner that could be helpful in a SAR effort. Why would any owner not register? (If the goal is just to cause trouble, then get a deactivated cell phone and randomly call up 911.)

  9. Andrew December 30th, 2009 5:03 pm

    I’ve been using a loaner SPOT for about a year and grown to like it quite a bit. I don’t think it provides any more of a false sense of security than an Avalung, avalanche beacon, cell phone, radio or a car for that matter. The technology is still in its infancy, and although there are some things I don’t like about PLB’s, I’m looking forward to the future generations of them when they get things dialed a bit more.

    Sure, people may be sending out false alarms, but you can do that with a HAM radio as well, which should be blamed on the person, not the radio/technology. The false alarms they were getting were probably some snowmobiler who panicked over a runny nose or when he/she got their lips frozen to a beer can. 😉

  10. Kevin L December 30th, 2009 5:13 pm


    I re-read my post and don’t understand how my thoughts can be viewed as arrogant. ? Reading about the recent surge of people using PLBs just got me thinking about my own experiances (and mixed emotions) with the Spot and I shared some memories of youth and how I had one forced upon me. That was probably four + years ago and I admit to still carrying it, though I wish to never actually use it for anything other than it’s OK feature.

    I wish my folks still bought me skins… :angel:

    But now they draw the line at letting me live in their basement rent free.

  11. Kevin in L in Washington December 30th, 2009 5:21 pm

    And again, there’s been quite a few reports of people using their PLB in rediculous circumstances. Didn’t some family send out three 911s on a single week vacation to the Grand Canyon recently? Each time for reasons not requiring a 911 message?

  12. JimC December 30th, 2009 7:05 pm

    Sadly, many folks *do* try things they wouldn’t otherwise attempt when they have a beacon or a SPOT. The 3 activation/3 day story that Kevin refers to can be found here:

    To quote from the story: “When asked what they would have done without the SPOT device, the leader stated, “We would have never attempted this hike.” ”

    Absolutely irresponsible, and I was glad to see they were issued a citation.

    Fortunately, I think that most readers of WildSnow have a different take on the purpose of these devices. The dilemma that many of us face is whether or not the space and weight of the PLB could be better spent carrying extra gear that would allow US to get OURSELVES out of an emergency.

    For those that do carry PLBs, the vast (vast!) majority do register the units. Registration and updated trip information both provide valuable data that make a successful rescue more likely.

    (Matt, I love the morbid humor of your proposed message! Has me laughing out loud at work!)

  13. Nick December 30th, 2009 7:23 pm

    It’s not a new problem. ISTR a marine unit being traced to a dump in the UK a few years ago.

  14. Mark W December 30th, 2009 8:29 pm

    PLB’s have grown in popularity, but are they truly commonplace? How does one define commonplace? How many are truly out there in use by backcountry skiers, climbers, hikers, etc?

  15. Mark W December 30th, 2009 8:34 pm

    The more certain individuals rely solely on technology, as in things like PLB’s, GPS’s, the more we’ll see stories like some couple getting lost in Oregon because their GPS lead them astray. Some people seem to have a fairly blind faith in the effectiveness of such devices. Perhaps these folks should re-engage common sense, among other things.

  16. Lou December 30th, 2009 9:38 pm

    Someone asked why I lumped Spot in with this diatribe. Simply because I feel Spot’s lack of even rudimentary two-way communication makes it very difficult to deal with if the “911” button is pressed. Sure, you know who it is due to the mandatory account, but that’s it, zip, nada. In other words, you still don’t know if it was a false positive unless you can somehow contact the person who triggered the “911.”

    One step better than ACR for sure, but still…

  17. James December 30th, 2009 9:46 pm

    I’ve had a SPOT for about two yeas and take it on most trips. Like a few of the other poster’s, I ski alone and feel it is a justifiable tool. As far as I can say,the device has never played a roll when making a go/no go decision but humans are humans and there will always be people that abuse or misuse any tool. I leave mine on track a lot of the time so my wife can go online and see where I’m at. Also, leaving the thing on track can be handy if you are caught and unable to trigger the 911 button. That way, the thing just keeps sending your location every 10 minutes. I also second the opinion that giving SAR a SPOT location is going to save time and resources, and also make things a lot safer for searchers when they have a location to work with, even if it is just a body recovery operation.
    Allowing manufacturers and retailers to put these things out there without some kind of mandatory registration was a huge oversight that will have to be corrected soon if the service is able to continue. Also, people will have to be held accountable and pay-up when false alarms are triggered. If you want the responsibility of being able to launch a major SAR operation on your behalf with the push of a button then you also have to be willing to accept the consequences when the unit is misused either accidentally or maliciously. And those consequences should be serious.

  18. Louie Dawson December 30th, 2009 9:58 pm

    The big reason I carry a spot is, like tony said, to let people know NOT to rescue me. I can remember a few times where I’ve had to rush out to the trail head in the dark so that people wouldn’t be alarmed if I didn’t get back by the scheduled time, when it would have been nicer to just stay where I was for a little longer. I wouldn’t ever use the 911 function unless it was a real life/limb emergency.

    Those people hiking the grand canyon sounded pretty irresponsible, glad they got a ticket.

  19. Michael December 30th, 2009 10:29 pm

    As a member of the USCG I have been on SAR cases for EPIRB’s that we knew before we took off that it was most likely a false alarm. I have also searched for a “sinking boat” because of a mayday call that was obviously a fake. I have also done searches for people that were lighting off “flares” on Christmas Eve when we had witnesses at the location stating that it was kids lighting off fireworks.

    No matter what the technology there will be people that abuse or misuse it. That doesn’t mean that responsible, sensible people shouldn’t use the tools that are available.

    Not registering a PLB is dumb. It will only hamper a rescue effort. With a valid contact number a search team can find out a lot more info to assist in their efforts. Combine a PLB and an up to date “float plan” or trip plan taped to the fridge and a search can transition much more quickly into a rescue.

  20. Ed December 30th, 2009 10:31 pm

    I have an ACR, it was very obvious to me when I purchased a couple of years ago to register it. I also realize that you don’t use it unless absolutely necessary, to the point of not using it if for example you break an arm or ankle and can still hobble out of the wilderness on your own. In no way do I see it as a false sense of security (e.g. the way some see an avy beacon as an excuse to be an idiot in unstable snow zones). Since I travel solo in the backcountry alot, and realize that I did not want search crews risking their lives looking for me, if the unfortunate ever arises, for days or even weeks, the ACR is a good responsible thing. There will always be idiots, and it sounds like there is one now with an ACR, however, the SAR folks are supposedly planning to check in with the registered contacts of the ACR owner before going out on a rescue.

  21. Caleb Wray December 30th, 2009 11:38 pm

    I think the primary selling point behind the SPOT, for most experienced Wildsnow readers, is to keep the wife/girlfriend/parents from worrying or unnecessarily calling rescue. And for that it works perfectly. I think we can all agree on that.

    The more arguable issue is using it for rescue location. In my teens and 20’s I was of the opinion that one should be totally self sufficient and therefore carried no communication equipment. While I carry more than most, experience has shown me that you can’t possibly carry enough equipment to account for every possible crazy event that can and eventually will happen out there. Especially as you venture farther into the sticks for longer periods.

    The bottom line is that this is a good, but not perfect, technology. False positives are inevitable. Cell phones have been a nice societal improvement, but people falsely trigger the 911 feature on them all the time. Speaking to the benefit of two-way communication.

    If you keep a level head, and forget you are even carrying a safety device (beacon, cell phone, SPOT, GPS….) it shouldn’t affect your decision making. But if something goes horribly wrong one day, and this may happen if you are out there enough, you will be glad you have it.

    Note: I have carried a Sat phone on all expeditions since 2004, my wife (more intelligent than me) selected it as a non-negotiable item.

  22. Lou December 31st, 2009 8:25 am

    Spot just needs a keypad and limited texting to be the ultimate solution. The genius of Spot, despite it being sometimes iffy due to dependence on satellites, is that one is required to register for the thing to even work. That’s all ACR needs to do. If they don’t, I predict they’ll be required to do that anyway once false alarms become common, which is inevitable once tens of thousands of the things are out floating around in humanity.

    But yeah Caleb, I’m digging my sat phone, so simple and effective.

  23. Jonathan Shefftz December 31st, 2009 10:55 am

    “The genius of Spot, despite it being sometimes iffy due to dependence on satellites, is that one is required to register for the thing to even work. That’s all ACR needs to do.”
    — I don’t think ACR (or McMurdo) has that option. Now, Spot can do whatever it wants to do, since it’s a private-sector device, set up to Spot’s own specs. But any PLB is set up to government regs. I suspect those require a PLB to be operational even if the owner has not registered.

  24. Lou December 31st, 2009 12:33 pm

    Probably so Jonathan. I’ll predict that such a situation is not sustainable unless the devices in question at least have two-way comm. The future will tell.

  25. Ken December 31st, 2009 5:40 pm

    Hey Lou,
    Good point about the lack of vandal hacker prevention. It’s sad things like that are of concern.
    Do other countries require registration?
    Doesn’t the SPOT come not only with a subscription, but some form of rescue insurance?

    Bottom line… If you’re in the backcountry and have no cell, radio, etc. then an itenerary and a PLB can make the difference between a rescue and a (body) recovery. I personally don’t adventure with out BOTH.

    PLBs FAIL so an old fashioned itenerary is IMHO of greater value than a PLB. An adequate itnenerary consists of: A responsible party. A cut off time for your return. Who to call if you no show (I have the sherrif’s non 911 dispatch line). A
    basic map or description of where you are going. Your experience level. A brief equipment list. Don’t make rescuers guess. Don’t stray from what might be the potential search routte. DON’T FORGET TO CHECK IN!

    PLBs often save people who are not carring one themselves. I once was on a very remote road (Oregon Nevada border) and came up on a severly injured (flail sucking chest!) motorcyclist who had been there for hours. It was getting dark and a storm was coming. I couldn’t move or leave him without great risk. He assumed he was dead and told me to tell his family that he loved them. I told him that he would be ok, but I didn’t believe it. Zoinks, POP QUIZ! So I activated my PLB, stabilized the guy as best I could and went for help. Still a long way from town I saw a Sheriff running hot and flagged him down. He confirmed that he was responding to the PLB so I led him back and soon an ambulance arrived. The next morning ER doc said that guy would not have made it much longer, but he would likely recover. Phew! Long night.

    PLBs are not perfect. Sorry to hear of Alpine Rescue’s wild goose chase. If you’re gonna’ be out on Christmas eve at least you could get a good save.
    I once set (my registered) PLB off accidentally while attempting to replace the battery. The SO called quickly. Oops! I felt stupid, like I had an accidental discharge or something, but was really impressed with the response time. Made me feel safer.

    Good point about the PLB location saving SAR resources.

    I agree that PLBs lull unprepared people into a false sense of security and taking less responsibility for their actions… which too often places an unnecessary burden on SAR.
    Every time I put a PLB in my pack I remind myself that is a last resort only and I intend to exhaust all other resources before pushing that button. I hope I don’t wimp out when I am faced with that challenge.

    Happy new year, Ken ;^)

  26. Ken December 31st, 2009 6:18 pm

    Stupid Krimnl Trix – Seattle WA
    Did ya’ hear the one about the two Boeing employees who swiped a trans oceanic airliner life raft. Years later they thought it would be fun to float down the river in it. Soon after deploying the raft they were located by a USCG helicopter that had homed in on the automatic PLB (ELT?) and then confronted by grumpy state cops. The recieved grand theft, some kind of public service mis-use charges and a DUI as a bonus. Their sentence included a huge bill for the services and community service for SAR.

    Or the sad one (not related to PLBs) about the guy who fell a few thousand feet off Denali. The climbing partner reported having heard commotion, strange noises and and then silence after the victim went out to relieve himself on the exposed bivy. The ranger investigating the death attributed it to the victim’s having grabbed BenGay instead of the intended PreparationH which, when applied, led to the accident. Yeeeow!
    Ken ;^)

  27. DaveC December 31st, 2009 8:25 pm

    Speaking as some time volunteer SAR guy:

    If you own one of these devices, please register, and preferably leave some itinerary with some one at the registration point of contact.

    “A keypad and limited texting” will not make SPOT “the ultimate solution.” The ultimate solution would be 100% reliable. SPOT “coverage” is much better than cell phone coverage, but is not 100% reliable. I don’t know how SPOT coverage compares with a sat phone, but I know that SPOT coverage has occasional gaps in CO and WY mountain terrain. Coverage gaps include occasions when the unit successfully transmits only a portion of the location coordinates. This is likely to be a comparable issue if texting were added to the SPOT. The SPOT also requires up to 20 minutes to verify a transmission – much less than the ultimate.

    A major shortcoming of PLBs is the lack of a practical means of testing the device. Remember your trail head beacon checks? You can’t do that with a PLB. Another problem with the PLB is the lack of user replaceable batteries.

    Finally, a long view of PLBs & SPOTs would consider how long they will be around. SPOT requires a private satellite network ($$$$$$$). SPOT subscriptions can’t sustain it. Some nasty lawsuit against the network owner for screwing up a SPOT message . . . you never know how long it will be viable for. PLB being (internationally) government sponsored, change is likely to be slowww. I’ll guess the network infrastructure will survive false alarms for many years. What I’d like to see would be a fine on PLB manufacturers for any PLB signals that come in from un-registered units they made. If the manufacturer will give you $100 to register, or tap you for $250 if you don’t register in 30 days, PLB owners will register.

    And finally, if you know anyone who was in the area of Berthoud Pass for one or more of the days in question, please forward them the request from Alpine Rescue Team.

  28. Lou January 1st, 2010 8:52 am

    Why isn’t two way comm the solution, or at least most of the solution? You get an SOS message, you communicate back and forth, then the decision process is easy. In the rare case of a person on their last dying breath only being able to hit the button and not use a keypad for a text message, yeah, then it wold be more difficult. But common sense says one of the following scenarios would be way better than the other:

    -Scenario one: 911-SOS-Help message comes in, with zero information associated with it. Are you going to fly a helicopter to every one of these if you can’t get there by driving? Perhaps now, but what about the future when more of such messages occur? Funds for helicopters are not limitless.

    – Scenario two: 911-SOS-HELP message comes in, along with a text message saying, “badly sprained ankle, can’t walk, am in my tent, rescue required but am warm and comfortable in sleeping bag and tent next to Dreamcloud Lake.”

  29. Jonathan Shefftz January 1st, 2010 11:16 am

    “SPOT requires a private satellite network ($$$$$$$). SPOT subscriptions can’t sustain it.”
    – Nor do Spot subscriptions have to sustain it: that network is used for functions that tracking international ocean shipping containers and other major industrial applications. In other words, Spot is just piggy packing on something much bigger. Same for the GEOS response center – it’s mainly for corporate security.

    “What I’d like to see would be a fine on PLB manufacturers for any PLB signals that come in from un-registered units they made. If the manufacturer will give you $100 to register, or tap you for $250 if you don’t register in 30 days, PLB owners will register.”
    – So someone pays at least $300 or so for a PLB, then foregoes the free registration that will significantly enhance the usefulness of the PLB. I doubt that an additional $100 incentive is going to change the behavior of someone so incompetent and/or strange.

  30. Lou January 1st, 2010 6:03 pm

    According to Atkins and Wikipedia, something around 98 percent of PLB activations are false alarms, and very few people register the things. (See update at top of post).

    So far they’ve had SIX false alarms in the Berthoud Pass area coming from the same unit. They’re of course ignoring it to some degree now, but this after they exerted quite a bit of manpower trying to figure out if it was a real distress call or not.

  31. Jonathan Shefftz January 1st, 2010 6:05 pm

    I’m baffled by the first point — why bother spending significant $$ on a device yet then not bother filling out the internet form?

    As for the second point, is the definition of a false alarm “oops I pressed the button by mistake” or also calling in a rescue for a non-emergency situation?

  32. Lou January 1st, 2010 6:31 pm

    Jonathan, not everyone is that diligent with forms, internet or not!

    I think the definition of false alarm is “oops,” and according to Wiki many are easily resolved.

  33. David Becker January 1st, 2010 7:49 pm

    Hello All;
    I also have been going backcountry solo all my adult life, and I’m pleased to read the comments on this blog that there are many others that do so responsibly.
    Also, i’ve been a Civil Air Patrol SAR pilot for about 40 years, and from that perspective, have a comment for consideration. Much of the conversation is around the issue of efficiency of the beacon initiated SAR effort. In other words, how much wasted effort has occurred, and how to reduce that. We mustn’t forget that the purpose of the system is to be effective, not efficient. Effectiveness would be measured in how many saves there are, that wouldn’t have occurred without the beacons. For example, the CAP spends many hours and sorties going after false alarms, but that cost is insignificant compared with missions that end with lives saved.
    So, it’s good to strive to minimize the waste in the beacon system, but some inefficiency is unavoidable in any system that’s functioning for maximum effectiveness. Our challenge is how to wisely reduce the inefficiencies without reducing the effectiveness.
    Thoughtful discussions like this are a good step towards that.
    Incidentally, I use a SPOT while BC skiing, kayaking, hiking, and photography, and have had 100% success is signal completion, even from deep in canyons. I think proper placement and patience are the key.

  34. Jeff H January 6th, 2010 12:59 am

    I wonder if a rebate program might encourage registration. Mandatory inflation of all PLB’s by X amount of dollars that is returned upon registration. I wouldn’t think that it would take the prevention of too many false alarms/chases to recover the burden of such a program.

  35. Lou January 6th, 2010 8:31 am

    Jeff, they will inevitably need something like that. Continuing the present course is patently ridiculous.

  36. Pete Nelson January 6th, 2010 12:24 pm

    There was a recent incident in NH where a PLB was apparently used successfully. There’s not too many details written about it just yet but it might be interesting to get some firsthand reports back on the actual incident and the accompanying rescue procedure.

  37. Jonathan Shefftz January 6th, 2010 12:33 pm

    As with all initial (and often even final) media reports on such incidents, there might be far more to the story than written up there, but based on the information reported so far, having to hike 1.5 miles on Moosilauke with only a single snowshoe does not constitute a valid PLB or Spot activation.

  38. Paul B January 6th, 2010 12:59 pm

    Update: I saw this on backcountry / the goat, who often references you Lou.

    Sounds like almost what you have been looking for. Sends texts, but does not receive them.

    Receiving them doesn’t seem as important as sending. Any message received from S&R would be something like “Stay where you are”.

  39. DaveC January 6th, 2010 1:23 pm

    Replying to to a couple of responses to my earlier comment:

    100% two way communication would be the ideal. No doubt a shortcoming of the Spot is the inability to follow up, or potentially take back a 911 alert. My point about Spot is that it isn’t (yet?) completely reliable for one way communication. The ideal solution would be more reliable than Spot has been to date.

    My point about the cost of the satellite connection is that the Spot/ remote back country alert device market is not enough to financially sustain a satellite network. Yes, sure, there are other markets for satellite tracking services. The point is that Spot is a small part of the income for the satellite network. The satellite guys get pissed off at Spot, somebody gets nervous about lawsuits, Spot runs into financial trouble and can’t upgrade its technology to work with the next generation of satellites, etc., Spot could have a problem.

    Alternatively, PLB’s have the much larger resources of pretty much all the governments of industrialized countries. That financial might may make for a more reliable satellite network down the road. Of course you are relying on the a collection of countries’ governments to make the system work. That’s not necessarily an iron clad guarantee of future reliability either.

    Re: Dave Becker’s comment on alert – rescue efficiency: Much as the rescuers and some of the public would like to think that no expense should be spared to save a life, that just isn’t realistic. CAP and volunteer SAR resources are limited. If limited SAR resources are tied up in a false alert, and potential response to a true emergency is compromised. This doesn’t come up often, but as Lou mentioned, if there are two many false alerts, SAR & CAP just won’t have the patience to keep responding to them. Snarky ground pounder SAR comment, re: CAP: I look forward to the day that CAP has the technology to electronically assist with terrestrial PLB searches. I don’t think that day is hear yet.

    I work for a federal regulatory agency in my day job. Another regulatory approach would be to require PLB retailers to get registration at the point of sale, sort of like gun sales. That doesn’t guarantee registrations stay current, but it puts the initial registration onus on a business which theoretically has a more business like approach to their activities.

  40. jerimy January 6th, 2010 9:12 pm

    Looks like SPOT has been listening to users and teamed up with Delorme on a GPS with texting. Only outbound messages but a huge step in the right direction.

  41. Lou January 6th, 2010 9:23 pm

    Indeed, a terrific step. Thanks for the link!

  42. DaveC January 7th, 2010 7:47 am

    Recent developments:

    The problem continues, most recent alerts around Berthoud Pass, after one near Crested Butte New Years Eve.

    The retail point of sale has been identified and its in the Denver area. Promising efforts are underway to identify specific purchasers. The retailer’s records show a group of individuals who bought ACR PLBs, but do not identify which individual purchased which PLB.

    Again, if you know anyone who has been recreating near Berthoud Pass this week, and especially if they were at Crested Butte over New Years, please ask them to read this post. If you or they actually have a PLB, please contact Dale Atkins and/ or Alpine Rescue Team (see start of thread).

  43. David Becker January 7th, 2010 10:11 am

    To DaveC;
    Your comments on limited resources are quite correct.
    The CAP does presently have capability to track all ELT and PLB signals. These devices transmit on 121.5 and 409 Mhz, The direction finders that CAP currently uses, both in aircraft and portable units, can track these frequencies. Some older DF units didn’t track 409 Mhz, but all the newer ones for the last few years do so.
    Generally the local sheriff has to request the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Maxwell AFB for CAP support for ground searches, and that sometimes doesn’t happen for various reasons. If CAP isn’t requested for support, it might be because the SAR folks on the ground aren’t aware the capability exists. I know we have an active program in Idaho to educate the local sheriffs and SAR groups of CAP’s support capabilities, but this doesn’t happen everywhere.
    David Becker

  44. jerimy January 8th, 2010 1:08 pm

    Looks like it was too good to be true. You need BOTH a SPOT 2 and the new Delorme PN-60W for this to work. They then communicate to each other via wireless link. Would be so much better if it were only one device.

  45. Phil January 8th, 2010 3:37 pm

    OK My 2 cents..I BC ski, sea kayak,backpack, free dive and dirt bike ride solo in very remote locations where cell phones are not an option..add to that I am 67 years young and no longer feeling invincible…

    First it may have been mentioned but a Spot is NOT a PLB…PLBs [such as my ACR Microfix {light weight and waterproof to 10m}] must be registered with NOAA…Lou’s comment that he carries a Spot to let folks not rush to his rescue is a kool idea I had never thought of…but if and when it is down to you surviving or not surviving you push the big red button on the PLB…I guess my ego and pride is strong enough now to acknowledge that all those years of operating without a safety net may have stroked my self-esteem but now each day is preciou..

    Ok buy a Spot to show your track or let someone know you are OK..but I have seen the Spot greatly abused…situations that were an inconvience and not a threat generated first responders galloping in to help when they were not needed..a lot of “cry wolf” stuff..A PLB is not a tracker, it is not a “Hi honey here is where I have been”..a PLB is for declaring your life is threatened and you need a rescue…nothing else.

    A Spot has issues and like a cell phone is often misused. Take your pick a Spot commercial location system or a PLB military location system of satilites accessed around the globe.

    Will PLBs also be misused? Of course. Hopefully this will not kill what is a superb system of locating a dying person in time to save them…average dispatch time after activation of a PLB is 5 mins…and the satilites put them within 100 m of your location.

    Yes, I like to pull the tail of the dragon, but more and more I really want to live to do it again and again…at least until I am 100!

    To each there own…

  46. Brent January 12th, 2010 6:15 pm

    True! SPOTs are not PLBs.

    See this informative forum post for details:

  47. Pierce March 3rd, 2010 9:15 am

    I’m sorry, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, but WHAT A $%&*!!! IDIOT. If balloon boy’s father got fined for the rescue he caused, so should this guy. There is just no excuse. I hope he was at the doctor’s getting his head checked.

    Perhaps the reason why SAR and the Sheriffs are not pressing charges is because they feel ACR has some culpability for the reasons you state, Lou. I agree there should be some hard requirement for registration, and a hit-you-over-the-head warning when activated. Good lord, didn’t even read the box, let alone the instructions.

  48. Lou March 3rd, 2010 9:31 am

    What Pierce said.

  49. jgage March 3rd, 2010 9:51 am

    Only in Colorado!

  50. DaveC March 3rd, 2010 9:56 am

    Not reading the instructions, donning an avalanche transceiver, turning it on and hoping for the best sorely tempts Darwin as well.

    From the news accounts, vis a vis balloon boy:
    -Balloon boy dad was alleged to have decieved authorities. PLB moron apparently convinced authorities that his intentions were not deceptive.
    -Balloon boy got international news coverage. PLB moron got a little bit of Denver area media. More media exposure of false reporting incidents makes authorities more likely to prosecute.
    -I believe it is FCC or maybe FAA who has jurisdiction over false PLB reports. In theory the Feds could still go after PLB moron (not likely?)

    Thanks Lou for posting this. If there is any silver lining from this incident, it would be the opportunity to spread the word to recreationalists to register their PLBs.

    Personally, I say FINE retailers who sell non-registered PLBs. Prohibit retailers from selling PLBs without registration. Probably talking to a brick wall, but absent a viable accountability mechanism forcing PLB owners to register (and update!), Lou is right that PLBs are headed towards uselessness because of the overwhelming number of false alarms.

  51. Matt Kinney March 3rd, 2010 10:20 am

    Interesting that his ski partners never checked his beacon. That is some serious ignorance by BC skiers. :shocked:

    I carry my sat phone in areas where my cell phone does not work. I show my partners how it works. Then i keep either phone OFF while touring. Agree with lou that direct verbal comms is the best thing in an emergency. This is soooo much better than SPOT, EPrirbs, etc…….

    Won’t even touch the subject of where I stash or wear it while skiing, lest I be accused of being “negligent”. :getlost:

    Skiing with a group from CO later this month so I guess I better check their beacons a bit close… :w00t:

  52. KDog March 3rd, 2010 10:27 am

    Pierce is right on the money. It’s not the gadget it’s the human using it. If every piece of tech invented had to pass the “idiot” test, we would never see anything make it to market. The relentless pace of advancements is bound to leave more than a few people behind.

    Many older backcountry savvy people I ski with, are loath to give up their M1/M2 beacons in favor of new technology. They are super comfortable and practiced with their old gear and any deficit in the devices is more than made up for with experience.

    Contrast that to the new Slackcountry skier with all the gadets hanging like bling bling around their necks. Digital S1 beacons, GPS, PLB, Avalung, ABS pack, GMRS radio/SAT phone and zero experience. It’s a false sense of safety created by the “Technology Halo” and it’s not “idiot” proof.

  53. Francis March 3rd, 2010 10:45 am

    talk about educating users on the backcountry….holy moly

  54. Lou March 3rd, 2010 10:52 am

    jgage, now that hurts!

  55. Thomas B March 3rd, 2010 11:27 am

    I think it’s time to put the”risk” back into high risk activities like skiing. :biggrin:
    No PLB, just a brain, continuing knowledge, reliable partners, good practices and a functionning avy beacon and small med kit+ WFR cert.
    To those that say “PLBs don’t change their decision making”, I think you are deceiving yourselves, it may be subtle or unconcious but you wouldn’t have bought it otherwise. ( beacons do the same btw)
    Be 100% honest with yourself and your overprotective ego before dismissing my last comment…just sayin’…..

  56. jgage March 3rd, 2010 11:43 am

    I am sorry, I just couldn’t help it…


  57. Phil March 3rd, 2010 11:48 am

    Ouch! The PLBs or those that manufacturer them are responsible for bone head decisions or misuse? …ya that makes sense.

    As for putting “risk back” into any activity; it is really up to the individual and always a matter of degrees….come on, why not leave the avy beacon at home also? What 15% of burials survive? So what the hell, why even carry a shovel?
    To bury poop? I say respect a person’s tolerance for risk and don’t judge them.

    As for cell phones, sat phones, GPSs, laptops etc etc etc that is an individual decision…what I do agree with is making persons accountable and responsible for their decisions..all their decisions.

    Also NOAA administers the registration of the true PLBs [such as ACRs] and not the person selling them….in the long run having a PLB to guide SAR crews saves time and is less dangerous than search for the needle in the hay stack..

    Lastly ACR, for a fee, will now send an “OK” message to a designated person [s] when you run a test [to assure it is in fact transmitting] with the PLB in the field….as Lou said letting folks know that even though you are over due that nobody has to charge out to find or assist you is a good feature..

    Anyway this chatter on Spots or PLBs is like debating apple pie and motherhood….nothing is really accomplished..

  58. Derek March 3rd, 2010 11:50 am

    They need to make a system that once activated it must be turn off by the SAR or company itself. That way it you do accidentally activate it and can’t get it off in the time window before the signal I s sent 30sec. or min. You have to explain why you are an idiot that shouldn’t have one of these things and then take the penalty for wasting time and money. It should go along the line of dialing 911. Another thing that MUST happen is registration. If you don’t take the time to register it don’t expect a rescue.

  59. John B March 3rd, 2010 12:10 pm

    If you make a better mousetrap you make a better idiot? Oregon is fighting to stay in first place with electronic stupidity.

  60. Lou March 3rd, 2010 12:45 pm

    Phil, I disagree about nothing being accomplished with our chat. I can think of two things without even trying:
    – Raising awareness of using this technology correctly.
    – Industry reads this, and they get validation about ideas such as making the units work better.

  61. Phil March 3rd, 2010 1:57 pm

    Lou…Man I hope so! But no matter how good the planning or design my experience is that nothing is “fool” proof and poor judgement is becoming very prevalent….and it is only my opinion but public awareness is for naught since common sense is getting very, very scarce…like I said I will keep the faith but stupid is as stupid does and there seems to be no end in sight….

    Good grief but ain’t gettin’ to be a cranky old fart! Perhaps cuz the snow is thin here this season and more than our share of instability layers..

    Hey…have you found a ‘better’ Manaslu? :biggrin: I love mine..but use my Kilowatts/Fritschis on patrol to avoid the Dynafit Tap Dance when time is of the essence..take care.

  62. Tom Gos March 3rd, 2010 3:19 pm

    It sure does seem that PLB’s could be better designed with some of the idiot features described above. I’ve never used one, but it seems crazy to have it send as soon as its turned on (how do you check the batteries?). I’m betting that these things quickly go the way of the dodo because rescue agencies will simply refuse to respond to them. And, I think I’ve read that California is expieriencing the most false activations (the land of fruits and nuts and all that). Sat phone technology will probably advance and become less costly so people will end up using those instead.

  63. pete March 3rd, 2010 3:34 pm

    Noticed that ACR is now offering the 406Link service for the “I’m OK” peace of mind crowd.
    I think the technology is eventually headed towards a more robust and low cost device along the lines of a combination PLB/Sat phone/SmartPhone/GPS. It’s coming whether you like it or not so I agree with the statement that this dialog and conversation can help in some ways to spec out what’s most useful and to whom.

  64. Ken March 3rd, 2010 6:26 pm

    Hey Lou,
    Just wanted to complement you on stirring up a great debate on PLBs. There are certainly many strong opinions, but if the PLB mfgs, SAR, pro guide and backcountry users are listening (as I hope they are) this debate could save many lives.
    You inspired me to get a field programmable radio in the mid 80’s. I remember catching grief from the purists back then… and it seems, based on some of the spirited debate here, that little has changed.
    Having served on a few different SARs and been a guide, I am 100% for intelligent improvement in backcountry communication. The merging of existing and affordable technologies (“I’m OK”, 2 way comm, Sat, GPS, etc.) represents a major leap forward in the ability to effectively and efficiently identify, confirm, locate and extract a victim. It’s all about saving more lives in less time with fewer resources.
    Having done my share of dumb things in the backcountry, I find it hard to judge others too harshly and can only hope that the other dumb doers learn faster than fate can catch them. Should fate catch them, I hope they have a way to call for help.
    Having been a firefighter/medic I can say that many fire rescue calls are FAs (false alarms), but the ability to call for help saves lives and FAs do not stop fire rescue from showing up EVERY time as if some one’s life depended on it.
    I appreciate how frustrating it can be for SAR with personnel and budgets stretched thin to respond to FAs, but improving the technology could, if done right, reduce the FAs and increase the saves.
    Ken Ward
    Ashland OR

  65. College March 4th, 2010 1:15 am

    I hope to read more from you! Your articles always provide relevant topics that are interesting enough to keep me reading until the last sentence. Thank You and I look forward to your next post.

  66. Jonathan Shefftz March 4th, 2010 7:40 am

    ” I’ve never used one, but it seems crazy to have it send as soon as its turned on [….]”
    — That is *not* how they work . . . although I can understand how you can be led to think that after reading many of the comments here.
    — Having owned a PLB, I am absolutely baffled as to how anyone could possibly: 1) not bother to register it; and, even more astounding, 2) activate the rescue signal in a casual manner. (Even without reading the user manual, it’s immediately obvious that the rescue signal is not meant to be activated like, say, an avy beacon.)

  67. sherryb March 4th, 2010 11:01 am

    Wow!! I guess it was predictable what a huge response this topic would arouse. Here’s a sad and horrifying thought about personal emergency locators. How long will it take for us to ignore them as we do car alarms these days? Does anybody really investigate car alarms anymore, when many are going off and on or endlessly trolling their “emergency” in our public parking garages and maul : ) lots?
    I know that is a huge leap in thinking and emergency agencies have an obligation to investigate (note I did not use the word “respond”) but I think it would be easy to become jaded to the whole thing.

  68. Lou March 4th, 2010 11:26 am

    Ken, thank for chiming in!

  69. Lou March 4th, 2010 11:27 am

    Sherry, your point is exactly what I’ve been harping on. Car alarms are a great example!

  70. Phil March 4th, 2010 11:46 am

    A big problem is the lack of knowledge and then compounded with suppositions or WAGs. Yes, 9-1-1 calls have also been abused to the point of being almost laughable…and yes I personally know of three “help” calls on Spots that should never have been sent [off road motorcycle] but that doesn’t negate the value of the Spot [it has its place, just not in my pack] …a true PLB such as my ACR is a different kettle of fish…it is NOAA/US SAR center controlled, average response to signal and call to local SAR is 5 mins…to activate the ACR you must unlock the antenna and put it in the up position, only when the antenna is up can you access the only button on the ACR the “send” [on/off] button. There is no ‘accidental’ sending of an emergency signal. Panic based on real or perceived threats is unpredictable in everyone at anytime….I spent 35 years working in high risk environments as a risk manager and to this day my response is never 100% assured….so where does that leave the issue of whether we should or should not carry an electronic emergency signaling device? My personal feeling is that more and more folks are becoming more and more dependent on someone else bailing them out even in the most mundane of circumstances…few, very few take the full responsibility of being the best prepared they possibly can BEFORE engaging in a high risk activity…many if not most prefer to buy gadgets hoping that they will make-up for their personal lack of survival skills…tracking beacons [Spot] or PLBs [ACR] are becoming our crutches but for the few who do prepare they can be a life yes, let them proliferate because the persons saved through their correct use will overshadow the use by the ill prepared.

    But they are not foolproof nor will they always save your bacon…learn their limits and go to them as a ‘hail Mary’ last resort…or as has been noted, to let folks know NOT to call out the troops cuz you are doing fine even if you are overdue.

    Hey about my Manaslu question…have you found a better ski? :biggrin:

  71. pete March 4th, 2010 2:29 pm

    From ACR corporate twitter feed: ACR PLB used in the USCG helicopter crash in Utah coming back from the Olympics

  72. ffelix March 4th, 2010 5:38 pm

    Compensating behavior is pretty well established, & certainly will occur with PLBs, et al. Atkins has even published on it as it relates to decision-making in avalanche terrain.

    The effects can be either positive or negative from a survivability standpoint. What very few researchers in any field would argue is that asking people what effect things have on them is about the least reliable way to figure things out–sorry SPOT owners posting here 🙂

    Here’s a link to a study that references some of the seminal research in the field [Pelzman, Viscusi, etc.]:

  73. Art 631 March 4th, 2010 8:49 pm

    You may all be interested to know that the SAR community is actively engaged in the discussion of correct use of PLBs, etc.:

    Howard Paul
    Alpine Rescue Team, Evergreen, Colorado
    Public Affairs Manager, Colorado SAR Board
    Board of Directors, National Association for Search and Rescue

  74. Njord March 5th, 2010 11:07 am


    I needed a good laugh this morning… too bad this guy sounds like someone that I might have to dig out one day (when he gets a “real” beacon).:wink:

  75. Mark W March 5th, 2010 9:26 pm

    To bad the dodos tend to mess things up for the rest of us. I am glad to hear that thinking, responsible users do still make up a portion of those who use units like the Spot, otherwise the whole story would be completely embarrassing.

  76. Rich March 7th, 2010 1:12 am

    Only in Colorado, LOL! You can really make this stuff up.

  77. Kidd March 8th, 2010 9:05 am

    Ten bucks he’s not from Colorado.

  78. John March 24th, 2010 8:40 pm

    The FCC allows Emergency Distress calls on “whatever frequency seems to offer the best chance of getting a usefull answer”. I carry a 5 watt UHF/VHF radio capable of transmitting and recieving in this entire spectrum (AKA a rubber radio or opened up radio). Not illegal to own but illegal to operate on non-licenced frequencys, commercial or ametuer, unless there is a true emergency.

    As a Spot owner I have designated a frequency in the Help and SOS message so that 2-way communication may be established, if in range.

    I presume that if I have to activate the Spot for outside assistance I will be helping others, and will possibly be able to communicate on a pre-determined frequency.

    Just wanted to get some feedback on this concept (particularly in dead radio zones)for sending a pre-established frequency.


  79. Jerry Lamontine May 26th, 2010 8:30 pm

    HR Smith Group (England) / Specmat Technologies Technologies (USA) offers the 500-12 Personal Locator Beacon is designed to work with the COSPAS-SARSAT search and rescue satellite system and features 406 MHz as well as 121.5 MHz and 243 MHz distress signals. It also incorporates a speech function which allows survivors to have two way voice communication with a rescue craft. This PLB offers the two way voice feature so the person in distress can talk with the rescue forces – same feature that is available to military PLBs. More details at this link:

    Hope this is useful.


    Black Forest, Colorado, USA

  80. Mark June 11th, 2010 5:41 pm

    in response to first comment, from Kevin L. in December 2009:

    Kevin, you are an idiot.

    Regarding your PLB, you wrote that in an absolute emergency, “I’d like to think I wouldn’t use it, no matter what happens, that I’d be bold enough to toss the thing aside and die a lonely death in the wild”.

    I sincerely hope you get the chance to realize this dream of yours as soon as possible. Once you do, those of us who haven’t romanticized “survival” to the point of utter idiocy will laugh at the irony of your moronic demise. We will be capable of laughter because we will be STILL ALIVE.

    p.s. IDIOT!!!

  81. Jay December 2nd, 2010 5:31 pm

    Firstly, laws should make it mandatory for PBL’s to be sold by licensed dealers along with the requirement to complete registration at time of sale/purchase. Would be no different to buying a car or gun. Same would apply to transferring ownership.

    Secondly, laws should make it mandatory for manufacturers to meet stricter standards, ok to base station and then voice and picture capture transmission at time of emergency activation.

    Otherwise it’ll turn out to be a worthless, non-life saving gadget.

  82. Phillip Buttolph December 2nd, 2010 5:48 pm

    OK…everyone take a deep please stop all the slander..please keep to factual information and avoid slashing out at those that don’t agree with you…this forum has been unique and I would like to see it stay that way…


    #1 Each PLB is registered with NOAA. So annual registration confirmation occurs. It has exceptional worldwide coverage.

    #2 A PLB is not a SPOT [big differences, see below for info source]

    #3 A PLB is not a tracking device; it is an emergency locating beacon.

    #4 A PLB’s purpose it to get help to a person with life-threating injuries/illness

    If you are mildly interested, go to ACR website for a plethera of information..

    My ACR MicroFix is like my avy beacon..on in the parking lot and off at the pub.

    But hey big folks make big decisions; to each their own..I pack one, it might prove to an @ 8oz life saver. 😉

  83. Lou December 2nd, 2010 6:17 pm

    Phill, sorry that post slipped through. I think Mark was trying to make a point, and it was a pretty good one.

    As for “Each PLB” being registered, I don’t know exactly what point you are trying to make, but the fact is a person can go buy a PLB, never register it in their name, turn it on to emergency transmit, and thus cause huge problems. That is the fact, and it’s quite problematic, wouldn’t you agree?

  84. Phillip Buttolph December 2nd, 2010 6:31 pm

    Lou…you are right about mis-use of a PLB…I do not know how NOAA/USAF/SAR responds to a signal from an unregistered PLB…good point you make, if in fact they still dispatch regardless if the PLB is registered with NOAA. Considering the stiff fines and possible criminal prosecution for unauthorized use of a PLB I am surprised that signals unregistered PLB would trigger a rescue…but hey, I ain’t no expert..

    I understand Mark’s point of reference…no big deal…I just greatly appreciate the solid information on this forum and the lack of disrespect seen on so many other forums.

    Hey it is snowing hard here in NE Oregon! Getting out tomorrow..Yahooo!


  85. Lou December 2nd, 2010 6:49 pm

    Phil, the tone of this forum is totally by intent, so feedback always appreciated!

    The problem with unregistered PLB stuff is more a matter of accidents than intentional misuse. But that doesn’t help, as it’s hard to come down heavy and make an example of a poor cuss who doesn’t know better…

  86. Dave Hojo January 13th, 2011 10:22 am

    Lou, Are you aware of any concerted letter writing effort to get PLBs designed with at least an audible (and somewhat intentionally annoying) beep when activated?


  87. Mark A. July 31st, 2011 8:38 pm

    It seems like a fairly simple idea, but why not publish that unregistered PLB’s will not be responded to? The way to get people to register and be responsible for their signal is to make it useless without registration. Now before you jump on me you don’t do this overnight, but give people say 6 months to a year to register and have a cutoff date for unregistered PLB’s.

    I also agree with having the PLB have a spoken warning that SAR will be contacted and that they will be responsible for false alerts.

    Finally, make the registration so easy that users can get it done in under 5 minutes over the internet

  88. Jonathan Shefftz August 1st, 2011 5:56 am

    “Finally, make the registration so easy that users can get it done in under 5 minutes over the internet”
    – Already been that way for at least the last half decade or so.

  89. Mark A. August 1st, 2011 4:27 pm

    “Finally, make the registration so easy that users can get it done in under 5 minutes over the internet”
    – Already been that way for at least the last half decade or so.

    Thanks for the comment Jonathan. I’m planning on buying a PLB so I haven’t had the opportunity to try the registration process yet. I don’t see why registration isn’t mandatory on these devices, especially with the cost of SAR.



  90. Phil August 1st, 2011 6:09 pm

    Wow…I was surprise to see this pop up again…nothing is idiot proof..let us just hope that dummies and malcontentss don’t cause the demise of a system that has and will save lives..

    One point. It is very tough to “accidentally” activate my ACR Micro PLB. In fact is impossible unless you unslot the antenna, raise it 90 degrees to expose the send button and then depress it. But some ‘accidents’ are on purpose..

    Below is FYI from NOAA website:

    “Who has to register a 406 MHz emergency beacon?

    All 406 MHz emergency beacon owners/operators are required to register their 406 MHz emergency beacon (ELTs and EPIRBs) with NOAA’s SARSAT program. This is a requirement from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The following web site contains more information on the regulation, look under Title 47 – Telecommunication”


    “What happens if I do not register my 406 MHz emergency beacon?

    The System will still work but rescue could be delayed. The Cospas-Sarsat System is designed to provide both identification and location information. Identification information can be provided two ways: (1) information such as the radio call sign or aircraft tail number can be encoded into the 406 MHz emergency beacon and/or (2) the 406 MHz emergency beacon can be registered in a national registration database such as the one NOAA maintains.

    As long as the System is able to obtain a position (either using Doppler processing or through the use of new beacons that can transmit their position as part of the 406 MHz message) search and rescue personnel can respond to a distress signal. However, when a position is not available the search and rescue personnel have to rely on registration information. It’s in these cases that rescue could be delayed until the System can obtain a position. Even with a position, the response may be delayed until the search and rescue personnel try to determine the nature of the distress, and their capability to respond to the location of the distress. The response would also vary country by country. NOAA recommends that you try to list two contacts, one of which, the search and rescue personnel would be able to reach at any time of the day.”

  91. Bill Cole November 9th, 2011 5:10 pm

    I’ve held off buying a PLB until they include a means of direct communication with responders..

  92. Phil November 9th, 2011 5:41 pm

    “I’ve held off buying a PLB until they include a means of direct communication with responders..” [Bill].

    OK Bill, perhaps I missed something, I often do, but why this position?

    What would you communicate to the responders?

    Realize that you are now talking about full two-way coms, which require more than a little integration and common frequency/equipment between parties. Sat radios can do this, but pose numerous other problems and shortcomings.

    Again the PLB signal is not for 2-way coms but for an emergency locating beacon signal; for a life or death rescue. In essence, “Here I am, come save my life”.

  93. Paul Bartlett April 27th, 2012 5:00 pm

    People need an incentive to register their PLB. Maybe you could charge an extra $25 for the PLB and then the owner could get the $25 back somehow when they register.Sort of like we used to do years ago with the deposit on pop bottles!

  94. Lou April 27th, 2012 5:34 pm

    Paul, I believe it’s inevitable we’ll need something like that.

  95. Bruce April 25th, 2013 1:55 pm

    I am just thankful that there are SAR guys responding to PLBs. I backpack for days in remote areas during archery hunting season and some of the places I venture into (whether hunting of fishing offshore) are unforgiving of mistakes. You can die in cold water or on a Utah mountaintop in 100 degree heat pretty quick and it only takes one small accident. My ResQ beacon is my insurance, registered for many years and never deployed but it gives me peace of mind knowing rescuers are not ignoring these…even though the vast majority are false alarms. God please the brave men & women who risk injury to pluck our butts outta danger.

  96. Jeff Parker April 25th, 2013 3:59 pm

    I was an Air Force search and rescue pilot for 10 years out of Portland, so I have responded to countless rescue calls in the mountains and at sea. I got out of the service at the dawn of the GPS age, so we didn’t have the advantage of pinpoint location that is available now.
    I think from a SAR point of view, having specific location information trumps the more numerous false activation’s that might be common with the advent of PLB’s. Most of our missions were body location/recovery, often because the victims died of exposure by the time they were located. I remember the very first cell phone rescue we had, a guy that had fallen high on Mt Jefferson. He was rescued within about two hours, unheard of at that time.
    The amount of time and resources spent, as well as the exposure of rescue personnel is greatly multiplied when there is no accurate position information. As far as cost, all active search and rescue ops came out of our training budget anyway, so that was a non issue at the time, that might be different today. Still, the bottom line is resources are spread much thinner and the exposure is greater when location is questionable.
    False PLB transmissions are relatively easily verified. Aircraft have had ELT’s for decades and we deal with false signals daily, it’s really not that big of a problem.
    Even the best intentioned and experienced climbers, back country enthusiasts, and boaters get into trouble on rare occasion. Taking personal responsibility is great, but having one of these devices at the ready is going to not only possibly save your life, but reduce the risk, exposure and cost to SAR personnel.

  97. Ken April 25th, 2013 6:01 pm

    Hey Jeff Parker,
    That’s an interesting professional insider view point. Location accuracy kinda’ takes the “search” out of “search and rescue”.
    I feel PLBs are great tools for saving lives. I’m surprised many here dislike them. Maybe they hate the sin (false alarms & Easy Button mentality), not the sinner (PLBs).
    I believe the FA rate could be reduced if a higher standard of accountability (registration, current contact/ICE info, leaving a trip itinerary and skill/gear brief w/ a responsible party or web service , etc) was required of users.
    Additionally, with the blending of 2 way sat text into PLBs like the inReach, I would guess that further reduces FAs.
    The PLB is growing up!
    Once young and foolish (Lou are you listening) and now just foolish, I’m happy to hedge my bets any way I can.

  98. monty August 6th, 2013 1:25 am

    Start billing these idiots who abuse these life saving devices the cost of the rescue party whenever there is found to be false positive activation. Problem solved.

  99. Durval Menezes November 3rd, 2013 4:50 am

    Why not implement the rather obvious solution of *not* responding to *any* activations coming from unregistered PLBs?

    Of course, some clueless/stupid PLB owners that didn’t read the instructions and registered theirs would end up dead… but it could be argued that those folks deserved to be nominated for the Darwin Awards anyway… and it would save a *lot* of effort and resources for the SAR teams to respond to real emergencies.

    To try and keep at least the literate idiots from not registering their PLBs, perhaps a big red label could be glued right on top of the PLB activation button with something like “STOP: REGISTER NOW OR YOU WILL GET NO RESCUE”; perhaps complemented by some media campaign (newspapers, specialized magazines, etc) to warn the current less-than-smart owners that didn’t register theirs yet.

    So, why not do that? I must be missing something…

  100. Howard November 3rd, 2013 10:53 am

    Because the job of SAR, Durval, is NOT to not respond to calls for help. Should a fire dept. not respond to a 9-1-1 call if the caller does NOT have a smoke detector (failed to take prudent precaution)? It’s easy to sit back and condemn others whilst at a keyboard, but we all are humans and we help each other.

    Howard – a 28-year SAR veteran

  101. Dean October 11th, 2014 6:29 am

    I have an ACR. I have it as part of my ditch bag in the boat for off shore fishing past radio range and it will be with me on my Elk hunt in CO.. It is registered and each trip in the boat everyone is instructed on how and when to use it. There are countless stories of wasted time effort and money trying to locate people lost or hurt either at sea or in the woods when bad things happen. there should be a major fine if you activate the unit and it is not registered. Since it is registered with a governmental agency the unit should come with a sticker or wrapper that warns you that it must be registered or you will be fine. They could also imbed a required activation code in the unit that you receive once registered, and the unit will not work if not registered. Even if it required a fee to register. Why not some of the units require a subscription. I was shocked that there was not a fee. I’m not for more regulations but in this case it would save money and man hours for those that
    are ” uninformed” ., so to speak.

  102. Lou Dawson 2 October 11th, 2014 7:22 am

    Dean, indeed, as discussed in this blog post the situation could become a real mess and take lots of man hours. Thanks for chiming in. Best wishes with the elk hunt. Lou

  103. D-in-reach December 29th, 2014 12:13 pm

    (Editor’s note: This is an industry post we let stand because it provides valuable opinion and information. To mellow it out we changed the post author name and got rid of a link.)

    Dean has some valid points. PLB’s are no doubt valuable. They have saved thousands of lives.

    But I also think there is something to be said about the widespread adoption of DeLorme inReach as an alternative for backcountry SOS.

    inReach utilizes 2 technologies that most other SEND devices [satellite emergency notification devices] and other SOS beacons like, PLBs & SPOT don’t use: 2 way communications, and free-form text messaging. Both technologies have vastly improved the lead time, preparations and overall efficiency of search and rescues..

    I often hear that many are hesitant to use the SPOT for SOS because of the real chance of setting off a false SOS from the device.

    DeLorme built safeguards in the inReach device to reduce, if not eliminate that risk altogether.

    First, inReach has an SOS “Lock” button, which has to be disengaged [kind of like a safety on a firearm], otherwise it’s impossible to press down on the SOS button and set it off.

    Second, after SOS is pressed, inReach has a timer that counts down for about 15 seconds, allowing you, if needed, to back out of SOS. And if you can’t see the SOS timer on the screen for whatever reason, you won’t be able to ignore the high-pitched alarm the device emits as the timer counts down to 0.

    Third, unlike PLB’s and spot, inReach utilizes 2-way communications.

    After the user triggers an SOS from inReach, he/she receives a reply from GEOS as a “Delivery Confirmation”, In addition, the user can text back and forth to GEOS emergency response center right from the device. 2 way comms allow emergency responders to not only to verify that it is a bonafide SOS, but also to obtain information from the inReach user to ensure that the correct personnel, equipment, & supplies are sent to that person in distress.

    [On average, the inReach user sends 25 text messages during an SOS!]

    When someone’s life is on the line, getting timely & useful information about their distress is critical. I know of a couple inReach SOS rescues, where the 2 way communications between the user & GEOS were credited in saving their lives.

    During the SOS, InReach users sent text via text information to GEOS detailing the severity of their injuries. GEOS learned that a timely extraction was necessary to save their lives, aborted the SAR rescue mission that was already underway, and in its place dispatched a helicopter to immediately extract the individuals and get them to a hospital ASAP.

    In both cases, doctors concluded that had there been any additional delay in giving those patients the needed medical attention at the time they did, both likely would have lost their life.

    To quote an author from an article on this very website:

    “You get thousands or even hundreds of thousands of “emergency beacons” distributed, and due to false positives their usefulness will diminish or outright die unless you provide some sort of accountability or 2-way communication. At least the [SEND Devices] require an account to even work.”

    Many REI stores carry the inReach device, and associates from your local store can give you additional information on what separates the inReach devices from the rest of the pack.

  104. Phil December 29th, 2014 1:39 pm

    OK…this can has been kicked around for a long, long time. “Mine is better than yours..” opinions.

    I am not going to ask about what I see as conjectures and slanted observations concerning the “latest greatest” inReach ‘sold at an REI near you’…

    Can we end all this conjecture by contacting the US Government SAR Center and NOAA to see what type, not brand, of emergency signaling device they deem is the most effective? Lets ask the experts with thousands of global recovery/rescues completed in all types of environments.

    Unfortunately many internet pundits may have stayed at a Holiday Inn but are not actually experts in all phases of SAR responses and certainly not in determining which devices have the highest probability of saving your life if activated.


  105. Lou Dawson 2 December 29th, 2014 2:12 pm

    If you don’t carry a satphone but want emergency comm, inReach rules. That is all.

    As for contacting the US Government SAR Center, can you tell me what that heck that is, website, email and phone number?


  106. Charlie Hagedorn December 29th, 2014 2:47 pm

    @Donnie — your well-written advocacy for the InReach would be more compelling without the Avantlink :).

    @Lou — perhaps Phil is referencing . Federal agencies have to be very careful about endorsing specific products, but asking them about different kinds of satellite SAR technologies might be fruitful.

  107. Lou Dawson 2 December 29th, 2014 3:22 pm

    Charlie, Donnie is indeed with Delorme, but the Avantlink is all Wildsnow and not of his doing. In any case, despite his bias Donnie makes some excellent points. Thing to remember is that even if someone is biased (me, NYT, Donnie, etc.) they can still produce some useful information (grin). Lou

  108. Lou Dawson 2 December 29th, 2014 3:36 pm

    Ridiculous how confusing this all is. SPOT and others tell is to use GEOS for first contact. Then we have

    Fact is, just get a 2-way comm device, be sure you have local emergency contacts programmed in, and be done with it. For example, here in Colorado just obtain the none 911 phone numbers for county dispatch centers. Find out if they take text messages. If so, you’re set with inReach. Otherwise? Satphone works great, but perhaps contact GEOS, or the Air force?


  109. Bruce Carter December 29th, 2014 3:37 pm

    In a few months this discussion will be 5 yrs old and I for one am delighted to see emerging technologies that offer improvements to both first responders and thiose who venture well off the grid. I look forward to the day when i can press a button and be teleported to a hospital.

  110. Phil December 29th, 2014 4:13 pm


    Charlie’s comments encapsulate what I was suggesting.

    “ . Federal agencies have to be very careful about endorsing specific products, but asking them about different kinds of satellite SAR technologies might be fruitful.”

    In my opinion we should cut through the fog and try to determine what in fact what system works the best to save someone once activated. Not antidotal references but broad based factual experiences with rescues. Our sample “N” needs to be real world and large.

    No slight on anyone’s opinions; but there is certainly will be one emergency beacon device system that currently is “first among equals”. We just need to ask those that are on the sharp end of the stick and respond to these calls for help to identify which system has proven to be the most effective. They are in the best position to confirm what system is optimal.

    Here nobody would “abort a SAR mission” [surface team] if a helicopter extraction was needed and feasible. Surface SAR teams and helicopters are part of every initial mission plan. Helicopters [or fixed wing] are miracle rescue machines but sometimes, actually often, they can’t get it done after being dispatched for a multitude of reasons and those on the ground or water end up being the only lifeline available. And all life threatening emergencies necessitate an “ASAP” response; if they don’t they are not a life threatening emergency.

    Two way coms are advantageous if those communicating can accurately evaluate and communicate the totality of the situation. All those at the scene of a trauma are stressed by some degree of shock; often resulting in inaccurate information. Yes, a professionally trained and calm person on scene with coms can facilitate the rescue; but how often is that the case that such a person is part of recreational groups? Emergency decisions by on-scene rescue/first responder medical team personnel are the gold standard for directing and conducting the rescues and they have their own two way coms.

    But hey, I could be wrong! Neat thing is that we all get to make our own decisions and of course none will be 100% correct.


  111. Lou Dawson 2 December 29th, 2014 4:18 pm

    5 years is nothing in geological time.

  112. Lou Dawson 2 December 29th, 2014 4:29 pm

    Agree about the messed up comms, trained dispatcher can cut through the static and help the decision maker decide what level of response is necessary. That’s how 911 works, SAR doesn’t need to be any different. Lou

  113. Charlie Hagedorn December 29th, 2014 5:03 pm

    Awesome – I was just surprised to see the avantlink in the poster-ID.

    Thanks, Donnie!

  Your Comments

  Recent Posts

Facebook Twitter Email Instagram Youtube


  • Blogroll & Links

  • Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information & opinion website. Lou's passion for the past 50 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about ski touring and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free ski touring news and information here.

    All material on this website is copyrighted, the name WildSnow is trademarked, permission required for reproduction (electronic or otherwise) and display on other websites. PLEASE SEE OUR COPYRIGHT and TRADEMARK INFORMATION.

    We include "affiliate sales" links with most of our blog posts. This means we receive a percentage of a sale if you click over from our site (at no cost to you). None of our affiliate commission links are direct relationships with specific gear companies or shopping carts, instead we remain removed by using a third party who manages all our affiliate sales and relationships. We also sell display "banner" advertising, in this case our relationships are closer to the companies who advertise, but our display advertising income is carefully separated financially and editorially from our blog content, over which we always maintain 100% editorial control -- we make this clear during every advertising deal we work out. Please also notice we do the occasional "sponsored" post, these are under similar financial arrangements as our banner advertising, only the banner or other type of reference to a company are included in the blog post, simply to show they provided financial support to and provide them with advertising in return. Unlike most other "sponsored content" you find on the internet, our sponsored posts are entirely under our editorial control and created by WildSnow specific writers.See our full disclosures here.

    Backcountry skiing is dangerous. You may be killed or severely injured if you do any form of ski mountaineering, skimo randonnee and randonnée skiing. The information and news on this website is intended only as general information. Due to human error and passing time, the information, text and images contained within this website may be inaccurate, false, or out-of-date. By using, reading or viewing the information provided on this website, you agree to absolve the owners of Wild Snow as well as content contributors of any liability for injuries or losses incurred while using such information. Furthermore, you agree to use any of this website's information, maps, photos, or binding mounting instructions templates at your own risk, and waive Wild Snow owners and contributors of liability for use of said items for ski touring or any other use.

    Switch To Mobile Version