Would Free "Loaner" Personal Locator Beacons Save Lives and Money in Parks?

Benbo PLB.

A Benbo Personal Locator Beacon. Photo courtesy of Benbro Electronics.

There are plenty of remote locations in parks all over the world where you can't call 911 when trouble strikes, and there's been some lively discussion on the Traveler in the past year on the pros and cons of electronic devices that can be used to summon help in the backcountry.

Do such devices save lives and money? Are people more inclined to take unnecessary risks if they think help can be requested instantly with the push of a button?

A recent story on the Traveler highlighted examples of appropriate and frivolous uses of devices which allow the user to send an electronic SOS to the appropriate authorities. I'll just refer to all such units as "personal locator beacons."

Long delays in getting help during emergencies can make the difference between life and death, so authorities in two national parks in Australia are loaning personal locator beacons to backcountry users free of charge. Is this an idea worth trying here in the U.S.?

Australia has some national parks that rival almost anyplace in the U.S. in terms of remote and rugged terrain. Among them is Blue Mountains National Park, in the state of New South Wales (NSW). The NSW website offers a description of the area:

The Blue Mountains National Park covers over a quarter of a million hectares of land and has Australia's largest network of walking tracks, covering over 250 kilometres. Much of the park is remote and difficult to access, except via foot, making it extremely attractive to bushwalkers from all over the world.

Carmel Tebbutt, the NSW Deputy Premier and Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, notes that such parks offer great benefits for people and occasional challenges for managers.

“NSW is fortunate to have a spectacular national reserve system and while they are a great place to explore and unwind, it is important that people remember to do it sensibly,” Ms. Tebbutt said.

"Every year around 130 bushwalkers get lost and/or require rescuing in the Blue Mountains. Most walkers are found within 24 hours, but occasionally a weekend adventure can turn to tragedy," Ms. Tebbutt said. "…search and rescue operations …can be long and dangerous and of course harrowing for loved ones waiting for word of a hiker's welfare."

Ms. Tebbutt said the Blue Mountains had experienced two tragic bushwalking deaths in the past three years and these deaths that prompted John Bennett, an Australian businessman, to contact the NSW Police Force and offer to donate 20 Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) on the condition they be loaned to registered bushwalkers for free.

Information provided by Mr. Bennett's company provided some details about the program:

Every year, around 130 people require rescue and they are often found quite some distance from where they thought they were. In the case of the two deaths last year, finding the bodies took up to eight days.

The Benbro rescue beacons, when activated, can pinpoint a person's location to within hailing distance. Broadcasting on the international rescue frequency of 406MHz, which is monitored 24 hours a day, each rescue beacon has an individual identification code, registered to the Springwood Police Rescue Service, so that the monitoring authority in Melbourne can alert them within minutes of a signal being received.

To borrow a rescue beacon, on free loan, bushwalkers simply need to fill in a "Trek Intentions" form at either the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) office …during office hours or at the ...police stations, after hours.

This Benbro Electronics’ initiative has received strong support from the NSW Government, the NSW Police Rescue Service and NPWS, and supporters of the plan are citing results: by July, 2009 the units had already been credited with a role in three rescues.

In March 2009, David Tritton, a father of two broke his leg badly while on a three-day trek. He credits his rescue within five hours to use of a beacon; it would have taken at least 36 hours for his companion to walk out and notify authorities.

NPWS Blue Mountains regional manager Geoff Luscombe said two groups of lost school children had activated their beacons after becoming lost on bushwalks. "Each one of those was an appropriate activation and saved considerable expense in the rescue and also avoided further injury," he said.

Mr. Luscombe cited a key advantage of the beacons: Each unit has a unique identifier, "so the rescuers know exactly who it is and where they are."

Another national park in New South Wales has a slightly different approach: rent the beacons to hikers at a nominal cost. National Park and Wildlife Service Snowy Mountains Regional Manager Dave Darlington says his parks have been providing rental units to bushwalkers and back country skiers since 2002, and have recently upgraded to newer units that are lighter and more efficient.

"People will be able to hire them from the NPWS before embarking on any expedition into the park for $20 for up to two weeks with a manual credit card swipe securing a $100 deposit."

Police Superintendent Gary Merryweather was also supportive of the program, and said new advances in personal locator beacon technology would be a great help in any future search and rescue operations.

"The fact of the matter is that periodically people do get themselves into difficulty in the park and this can be said of some of the most experienced back country enthusiasts," Mr. Merryweather said. "Hire of a PLB and its use by people who are in trouble can help police immensely in locating them quickly and in the Snowy Mountains time saved looking for someone can be a life and death situation."

"I would encourage all people considering undertaking longer, more serious expeditions within the park to hire a PLB so that we can find them quickly in the event of trouble."

Any such program will have its fans and detractors, and a comment on an Australian Internet message board had a different—and slightly amusing—take on the whole idea. The hiker in question stated he had no intention to going into a police station to pick up one of the beacons, because the last thing he wanted was for the authorities to know where he was!

The number of units being loaned or rented in the Australian parks is pretty small compared to the number of backcountry users in many U.S. parks, but the concept is interesting.

What do you think? Is the idea worth a try in this country?

Comments

It not only helps rescue the individual but is safer for the rescuer in that they don’t spend time or are exposed to accidents when looking in the wrong places. Everyone should be offered a free beacon with the understanding that if activated and no emergency or injuries are involved the fine would be $1000.

I think it would be a great service.

I go deep into the backcountry where I probably should have one, but only on two short trips a year where a Spot or similar device is cost prohibitive. I think if you limited giving them out only to backcountry travelers, who need them the most, the misuse would be a rarity as most people trekking out for several days seem to be well prepared and more aware of the dangers they are subjecting themselves too.

Great to see that people are interested in the scheme from other parts of the world, our scheme has been well promoted in the Blue Mountains and is proving to be very successful with around 400 being loaned out since last October when the scheme started. We have had 3 rescues from very remote locations as a result and importantly we have had no inappropriate activations of beacons and we have had no beacons damaged, lost or stolen.
It is of course very important to stress that beacons are only a small part of an overall strategy and are no substitute for proper trip preparation and planning (please see the "Think before you trek" scheme) of which the beacons are a small part.
I think the key to success is accessability (24hr pick up and drop off is important), affordability (free is a good idea), simplicity (keep the process simple with no red tape) and of course publicity (the scheme will fail if people do not know about it).

We think that we have saved many times the cost of the beacons in reduced search and rescue time (in fact it has changed the operation into a simple recovery) and have maybe saved a life or two. And thats just the first year.

I think this is a great idea and we've been considering an on-site rental pilot program for some time now. As we're close to Mt. Rainier I've also toyed with the idea of providing our PLB rentals units at no charge during the off season when we have inventory literally just sitting around. Unfortunately, the combination that some higher ups in the NPS do believe people are more likely to take unnessary risks if they have a PLB has proven to be a significant road block. We have rented thousands of PLBs over the past 6 years and have the data which proves people are responsible. We also send out a general information sheet that stresses people may be responsible for rescue costs if the PLB was activated due to irresponsible use. If anyone has an "in" with the appropriate people who could work with us on a PLB loaner program for Mt. Rainier National Park, we'd be interested.
Kevin Stoltz
President
PLB Rentals, LLC

John -

Thanks for the feedback about how the program is working so far there in the Blue Mountains!

Kevin - appreciate your comments, too. It was good to know how the idea is faring at one U.S. park.