Rescue Beacon Tech Has Limits, But So Do Helicopters

Post by blogger | August 8, 2011      

Two super interesting articles out of Alaska point out the shortcomings of today’s rescue beacon and sat phone technology — along with just how much effort is required to make a rescue happen.

First, a story from Alaska (defunct link removed 2015). Mat-Su Frontiersmen reports that a group of friends goes down with their Cessna in Cook Inlet. They trigger their SPOT beacon and appear to have expected a rescue to happen in a matter of hours. Of course it didn’t, as SPOT doesn’t work that way. Then their dry-boxed satphone floats out of the plane as they’re clinging to the tail section rocking on six foot seas. The survivors dial 911 on the satphone. That doesn’t work either. They begin randomly dialing friend’s numbers and get answering machines (one because the person was on phone with SPOT, who were doing their steps for emergency response.) Someone in the group finally remembers an Alaskan law enforcement phone number, contact is made, rescue ensues. Everyone lived.

Moving along, a short time ago we published a well commented post about the now famous NOLS bear attack in Alaska. In the post, I mentioned that they’d used an emergency beacon to instigate a rescue. What wasn’t clear at the time is what kind of beacon the NOLS group used, nor how the rescue progressed.

As covered in a fascinating Alaska Dispatch article, turns out NOLS (worldwide) has been running a fleet of around 300 McMurdo Fast Find locator beacons that use a government system to alert rescue authorities. In the NOLS case, the SAR folks in Alaska were alerted within an hour of the student’s PLB activation. After that, however, it took around eight hours for the rescue to complete.

(NOLS instructors carry satphones, but students on final expeditions without instructors only carry PLBs due to cost as well as educational and ethical considerations, as they want the students to feel and act as self sufficient as possible).

The AK Dispatch article goes in depth about how the now prevalent one-way communication rescue beacon “PLBs” such as SPOT and McMurdo are being used more often than not to “call a tow truck.” More, you get inside look at how thin resources such as helicopter pilots are getting stretched due in part to false or what are really fraudulent alarms.

As I’ve mentioned before, the effectiveness of PLBs could go down to nearly zero if they continue to be predominantly one-way comm devices, due to the inability of authorities to “triage” and evaluate need. SPOT (with their “Messenger” model) and now DeLorme (see previous post) have come up with two-way backcountry texting solutions, but to do texting they require coupling in a proprietary way with a GPS, or pairing with a phone that is probably not ruggedized, may have battery issues, and is yet another thing to clutter up a backcountry recreator’s backpack. More, these two-way PLB solutions require yearly subscriptions that are not cheap, especially when you need more than one, or perhaps dozens (as and outdoor education outfit might). Satphone is another option, but they’re bulky, expensive, not ruggedized, and as the plane crash survivors found out you have to do your homework and have regional rescue numbers noted or pre-programmed into your phone as satphones will not function with the 911 system in any effective way.

In all, stone age. But making all PLB systems do two-way is probably impossible, and arresting people who activate their PLB for a stuck snowmobile seems kind of harsh. Your comments?


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16 Responses to “Rescue Beacon Tech Has Limits, But So Do Helicopters”

  1. Jonathan Shefftz August 8th, 2011 10:50 am

    Quite the harrowing set of articles!
    The NOLS article was very interested with its behind-the-scenes PLB timeline. I wish the plane crash article did the same for the SPOT, since it implies the sat phone-initiated rescue somehow jumped the line of whatever was being initiated with SPOT, although the details weren’t clear.
    Regarding tow trucks, the SPOT help button can be set up (for an extra annual fee of course…) to initiate a AAA-like service.

  2. Craig August 8th, 2011 10:59 am

    Just last weekend, though, I walked back to my car and was approached by a young woman looking for her friends who had been geocaching nearby. They had been doing some sort of point-to-point hike with geocaching along the way and apparently planned to walk up a ridge right by the parking lot before dropping down the their endpoint. Their route was about 6km as the crow flies, so I doubt it could have been much more than 10km in reality.

    It was 3:45PM, they had been due back the night before. This young woman said she was willing to wait until 5:00PM to drive back into cell service (about 1.5 hour drive) to call and check in with someone, because they apparently had a SPOT.

    Now, call me a hair-trigger but if a group on such a short trip goes overdue, I would have been calling the authorities the morning after. She was willing to let a 10 hour (that’s generous) trip go nearly 24 hours overdue. That just doesn’t make sense to me. It is important to note that in this area, well outside the Canadian National Parks, the Canadian Military SARTECHs are dispatched, sometimes with the assistance of Rocky Mtn. House SAR. The nearest military base is CFB Edmonton, about 250-300km away. A rescue would not have been on site for a long time.

    As it turned out, about 15 minutes after I told her she should really call in a rescue right away, her friends walk up the road a hooting and hollering. Ridiculously overdue, they were all wearing big packs and by the sounds of their conversation it didn’t sound like it was the first time they had run that far past their due time. I guess some people just have different standards as far as “I’ll be back at ___ time”. It goes to show that some people are more responsible than others, and that without a bunch of info rescuers have to take every call with a grain of salt. Had we called in a rescue, we would have been left looking pretty darn stupid.

  3. Lou August 8th, 2011 11:04 am

    Jonathan, I “tow truck” was just a metaphor for anything non life threatening. But yes, all sorts of stuff can be set up for situation specific help. One could even set their SPOT “OK” email with an email to a taxi service who knew when they get it they’re supposed to come pick you up at a trailhead, or something like that. Lou

  4. Mike August 8th, 2011 2:02 pm

    Does Spot offer a two way text device? I thought all of the Spot products are send only.

  5. Jonathan Shefftz August 8th, 2011 2:04 pm

    Spot is indeed send-only. The apparent two-way nature of the inReach is what really distinguishes it.

  6. Lou August 8th, 2011 3:45 pm

    Mike, if you pair a SPOT Connect unit with a smartphone, you do have two-way. But not with the regular SPOT model.

    All, check out this other Iridium system communicator that’s said to be available in September.

  7. Matt Kinney August 8th, 2011 4:05 pm

    What I do not understand about the NOLS incident is why it took emergency resources nearly 6 hours to arrive on site when there were resources nearby in busy Talkeetna only 30 minutes away. As far as I can tell weather was not a factor in the incident or the delayed response. What was the US Park Service rescue helo doing? Why did the trooper linger for hours in Fbks waiting for a helo. (Perhaps the state’s resources where stretched to the limit chasing DUI’s and salmon-snaggers on the Parks Highway.) Why didn’t the local trooper post respond versus Fairbanks. nearly 300 miles awa. Hopefully NOLS will have further information on the delayed rescue as residents and visitors should be concerned about this as many have put trust in the SPOT rescue system.

    If you are 50 miles off shore and activate your marine EPIRIB, there will be a USCG helo overhead within an hour. Same with a down aircraft. These type locators put out a loud and simple SOS, not a text with “cu@TH-w/latte@noon”

    I keep my sat phone preprogrammed to the local SAR unit or cop shop here in Valdez. If I go say the Sierra ie,, then I reprogram it to the nearest SAR group in Bishop or wherever. I use the seven digit numbers.. I do the same with my cell phone.

    Remember the seven digit numbers we use before 911 was invented? They still work. 💡 🙂

  8. Njord August 8th, 2011 4:59 pm

    Helicopters have limits???

  9. Ashley August 9th, 2011 4:45 am

    Looks great! Thanks for sharing the post.

  10. Lou August 9th, 2011 6:42 am

    Matt, I don’t know if you remember but this spring when Lisa and I were up at Rainer with Louie the Climber Disinformation Center wouldn’t give us the dispatcher numbers for our satphone. I had to look them up in the phone book. Never got clear on exactly which number to use first, but I found three or four and programmed those into my phone. Just shows that the SAR notification system still has a ways to go.

    Funny to think back on how we used to debate even carrying (let alone using) a cell phone in the backcountry, because it “changed the experience.” Probably still some debate on that, but it seems to have gone to a whisper.

  11. Lou August 9th, 2011 6:44 am

    Njord, my understanding is that any helicopter can go anywhere in any weather, the pilots never need sleep, every ship is equipped with a winch, and they cost less to run than a bicycle. Right?

  12. Njord August 9th, 2011 12:47 pm

    You forgot to mention that helicopter pilots all are very handsome!

  13. Lou August 9th, 2011 12:59 pm

    Njord, you can make that clear by doing some guest blogs about the heli ride you give us up to a certain place in the West Elk mountains. I’ll take nice pictures.

  14. wfinley August 11th, 2011 3:26 pm

    @Matt: A six hour delay to fly into the Bush is not much of a delay. Even people who get hurt on the peaks just outside of Anchorage can expect a similar delay. Rescues take time — sometimes it even takes an hour plus for EMTs / police to respond to accidents on the Seward highway. And if you get hurt in a remote area in Alaska don’t expect help for 12-24 hours.

    The PJs are the primary choice for remote rescues for a reason. If NPS or a private firm (like Talkeetna Ambulance Services) were responding to accidents then it would set a precedent for either federal response or private industry response to accidents on state land. Not only that but the PJs pretty much can land anywhere and handle anything. We all know the NPS heli pilot is awesome — but he doesn’t have a crew of crazy guys who are willing to pretty much do anything to save a life. As for Lifeflight and other similar services — they will never risk a landing unless everything is perfect, which pretty much means they’ll only land on the highway.

    Furthermore your quip about the highway and snaggers is non sequitur. People die just about every other day on the Seward and Parks highways – so it could be argued that a police presence there is a greater service than having someone around for the possibility of a remote rescue. And fish cops are ADF&G – not police.

    As for aircraft – don’t expect a timely response. If you recall the Stevens response was delayed for 12 hours to weather.

    In short…. 6 hours to coordinate a rescue and fly in the PJs is a pretty short timeframe given their location. If you get hurt in the mountains don’t expect anyone to show up for 12-24 hours.

  15. CozT August 11th, 2011 6:57 pm


    Very interesting post. I think you are correct about how these devices have the wild promise of a panacea while posing serious problems. I run college outdoor orientation program, and we send all our trips out with PLBS (which we rent). We lust after the functionality of devices liket the DeLorme InReach, but we have no way of paying for that number of subscriptions or devices. Interestingly, everyone in our institution sees the downsides of these devices (i.e., potential long delay in response, lack of two-way communication for the devices we can afford, problems with response forces becoming inured to calls b/c of people unnecessarily activating their devices, etc). This is the case from high administration to our risk management team to our student leaders. We all agree to carry them, though, because they *could* reduce response times in that incident that we all worry about, and because parents of participants are beginning to expect them. Personally, I’m just waiting and hoping that the technology advances fast enough that a device like the inReach becomes financially viable for us before it becomes a “must-have” because it’s the industry norm.

  16. Outdoor Bill August 31st, 2012 7:30 am

    Interesting article and comments – there’s been a new product on the market for less than a year – Cerberus which appears to address some of the shortfalls mentioned here. It is a two-way device which allows for incidents to be “queried”, is locally managed – ie: if I’m going into the back country of Denali, I can set the Cerberus to notify the Park Ranger (the guy who will actually coordinate a recovery) as well as others if there is an incident. Most of all it’s affordable because it can be rented for 2 or 4 week intervals.

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