Personal Locator Beacons –

When it all goes to custard, you need a PLB...!

A day on the tops, sun shining, crisp white snow, feeling great, a bull Tahr trophy head on your back after a perfect shot. This is the life! But then suddenly heading for home, you’re tired, you miss your footing, you slide down a small bluff – this is going to hurt, immediate pain in your leg, you can’t move it, warm red blood running down your face. Not feeling so great now.

Don chose this ACR because it’s the lightest unit on the market and well priced.

We all know, ignore it or not, that things can go very bad very quickly when we’re out in the mountains or the New Zealand bush. The odds stacked against you at any other time are minor and manageable, but when you are injured each “odd” may be enough to take your life. These include changes in weather, loss of direction, and the time lapse between sustaining an injury and being found and treated. This is by no means a pleasant subject to be writing about, but by reading this you may be able to increase your odds should the worst ever happen.

If possible, get yourself out into the open and do not move position once you’ve activated the beacon.

Category 2 Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) have been around for some time now and are carried by many different people in the outdoors including hunters, fishermen and trampers. They are lightweight, manually activated, accurate and designed to work in all climates and conditions. One brand has aided in over 28,000 rescues worldwide with its product since 1982 which is impressive.

PLBs are sometimes incorrectly called EPIRBs or ELTs. Just to define these, an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) is designed for maritime use. They are designed to float and can activate automatically. Emergency location transmitters (ELT) are used in aircraft and usually hardwired. They activate on impact, so you don’t want to be around when one of these goes off!

These units are small and light, and very user-friendly.

Older type beacons (transmitting 121.5, no GPS) should not be used or relied upon for rescue, as dedicated monitoring of them stopped in February 2009. Nonetheless, old beacons are still out there, still work and are still picked up by commercial aircraft. There is however one very dangerous problem with the 121.5 units. Due to the fact that these beacons are discontinued, they are turning up or being activated in some strange places including rubbish dumps and kids’ toy boxes. There have been so many false alarms that some airline pilots overseas have been known to simply turn down the receiver and largely ignore these alarms.

Once activated the PLB immediately sends out a signal. The signal is beamed into space and covers an area approximately 35,000 to 40,000 km in diameter. This is picked up by the COSPAS-SARSAT satellites. The position and the unit details are then transmitted to an earth receiving station called the local user terminal (LUT). Here the signals are processed to determine the location of the beacon. This information is forwarded to a Main Mission Control Centre (MCC), which in this part of the world is in Canberra, Australia. From here the 24 hour Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) uses the HEX id (15 alpha-numeric hexadecimal inscription) and manages the search and rescue mission.

The Life Flight team helicopter picked this injured hunter off an alpine pass. Depending on weather and location, help usually arrives within one to two hours (photo: Life Flight).

When you register your beacon, your details are linked to the HEX id. All of this happens very quickly. From the moment the satellite picks up the first signal to the RCCNZ being notified is under five minutes. All modern PLBs also transmit the 121.5 signal as well. This is the unit’s homing frequency, aiding searching aircraft to pinpoint your position. The 406 digital carries the GPS address and user/unit information. As you can see they complement each other for a better, faster, more efficient rescue.

Currently in New Zealand they are developing a remote activation system which could revolutionize the units’ capabilities. If successful the unit could be turned on by the RCCNZ should you be grossly overdue or unable to turn on the unit yourself due to injury. This function would also allow fast body recovery for missing persons and should almost be a mandatory item in some high risk jobs like offshore fishing or mountain flying. Some ACR units also have a great additional function that gives you the ability to send a message in e-mail and/or text form. This “I’m ok” button lets recipients know that you are okay, but may be delayed etc.

Always get a PLB that transmits a GPS location. This will almost take the search out of search and rescue. If your unit doesn’t have a GPS you may have to wait for a second satellite to pass. If you need to be rescued it is usually right away not in another four to five hours. It is better to purchase a beacon here in New Zealand as they will be coded for this region, even though they’ll all work worldwide. Only use the beacon in a life-threatening situation, this sounds silly but non-urgent use may cause delays to someone who needs urgent rescue, or lead to the forcing of restrictions upon PLB users. If you have to use your beacon, try to get a clear view of the sky, stay put from the moment you activate the unit and be patient. Things will be happening and hopefully be underway within the hour.

When you consider your position in relation to a satellite at the moment of activation, confirmation from your contacts (or the company if you have hired one), the organization of a rescue team and/or helicopter, then help won’t be instantaneous. Always register your beacon, have up-to-date information, and make sure your three contacts know they are a contact for RCCNZ, otherwise they’re going to be surprised should your beacon be activated.

Don hunts high, and his PLB gives both him and his family peace of mind.

Dave Greenberg, from Life Flight (Westpac Rescue), advises me that once activated, you should not turn the beacon off until told to by the rescue team – they have sophisticated GPS tracking gear in the machine accurate to the metre and use this for confirmation. He also emphasizes that one of the main problems is that people tend to just look up at the helicopter. They need to know it’s you that’s in trouble, and that you’re not just a nearby party. They will be on high alert and looking for anything out of place, so signal them any way you can. Blaze orange, silver survival blanket, a camp fire or waving in a beckoning motion are all good. If it’s night time, they will be using night vision equipment so any light source is a big help and most PLB come with a strobe light now for this purpose.

After a period of around five years your PLB will need to have its battery changed to ensure workability when you need it. Unfortunately, there is a charge for this of around $250, so factor that into your decision to buy or hire a unit. This cost covers battery, resealing and checking of the unit as well as recertifying. Never try to replace batteries yourself. Should you ever need to dispose of your unit the RCCNZ will be able to advise and can be called on 0800 406 111. The emergency number for the RCCNZ is 0508 472 269 and my advice is to write this number on the side of your unit. With more cell phone coverage in New Zealand now, you may be able to talk to them directly. You will also need this number if you accidentally set off your unit – if that happens turn it off immediately and call them.

Where you carry your PLB can have a direct effect on your imminent rescue. A PLB must be on your person at all times to be of use. It should be in a spot where you can reach it at all times, even if you are injured. It is no good if it is stashed away in a daypack at the top of the bluff you just fell down, or in the glove box of the truck. It needs to be positioned where it is not easily separated from your body. I have two spots that should allow me to easily activate it with either arm with minimal effort. The first of these is on my hunting belt near a small first aid kit. The second spot is on the left shoulder strap of my daypack – I’m a right-handed shooter. These places suit me and would require very little movement to reach. These positions may not be suitable for all scenarios but I believe if the fall is so violent that a daypack or belt gets ripped from my body I am probably not going to be in a condition to set the device off anyway.

Don’s mates, Dion and Craig – this is real ankle-breaking terrain, especially when you’re carrying out a heavy load of meat.

I had $700 in the bank to do either a helicopter solo hunting trip or buy a PLB. I decided to book the chopper the next day and looked forward to organizing my hunting trip. At 4am that morning, as part of my job, I was called into the emergency department of Timaru hospital to x-ray a hunter who had fallen into a frozen creek with a deer on his back. He had broken his leg in the process, and had been lying in ice-fed water for many hours. Help finally came when, at 2am, the property owner was having a pee outside and noticed the interior light of a vehicle on up the hill. He decided to investigate and found the dangerously hypothermic man with a compound wound destined to become infected from time spent lying in the residual gut content from the deer. He was in a bad way but recovered to hunt another day.

Me, I cancelled my trip and bought an ACR PLB the very next day. One advantage of carrying a PLB is that if you are delayed during a hunt and known to be carrying a beacon which hasn’t been set it off, it can be reassuring for your family – they know that you are just going to be a little late. This may also have the effect of stopping family, friends, or search & rescue jumping the gun and initiating a search too early.

The three main brands of new PLB’s in New Zealand at the moment are, Kannad, GME and ACR. All share some commonalities such as a five-year battery life, LED strobe, COSPAS – SARSAT compatibility, plus 406 and 121.5 frequencies. The new ACR Res-Q-Link needs a special mention as it is the lightest of the units at a measly 152 grams and one of the best priced. They also have an impressive record for reliability and durability. In addition they have a unique colour (high-viz yellow) and can be seen easily at distance.

I certainly hope that no-one reading this ever needs to use a PLB, but when hunting alone, or with others, I do suggest that you consider one of these units if not for your own peace of mind, then for your family and friends. They are a lightweight, proven product, aiding in fast and accurate rescue, that work well, even in NZ conditions. We all moan about carrying extra gear around the hills now, cameras, spotting scopes, rangefinders, sports water, and a myriad of other items that if we left at home we could manage without. A PLB should be separated from this group and put into the same class as a GPS or compass. These are safety items. A PLB should be an essential item if you are a hunter who frequents difficult terrain alone, you hunt with very young children, or you have a known health condition. Currently the RRP for a PLB is just over $600, which is lower than when I bought my first unit. Shopping around or contacting importers such as Hutchwilco is sound advice. They really support their product and will look after you. There is also a good selection of places that you can hire a PLB from should you not want to purchase. The largest of these is the Southland Locator Beacon Charitable Trust and a big thanks to John Munro from the Trust, as I had an armload of questions about PLBs. They have over 300 units for hire and over 35 outlets nationwide offering an impressive and standardized service. Once again their concerns are more in getting people to carry the units rather than making large amounts of money so you will find hiring very wallet friendly.


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