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.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.