Satellite Emergency Beacons Ready for Hikers, Skiiers

WASHINGTON, DC, July 7, 2003 (ENS) - Locator beacons that can be carried by individual outdoor explorers and activated in an emergency are the latest advance in personal safety made possible by satellite technology. The beacons emit a signal tracked by a worldwide satellite search and rescue system that became operational on July 1 for individuals anywhere in the continental United States.

Signals from the personal locator beacons (PLBs) are picked up by satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The new beacons, soon to be available at outdoor sports and electronic retail outlets across the country for about $550, utilize the same technology used for satellite tracked distress alerts carried by aviators and mariners.

“Personal locator beacons save lives,” said retired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, Ph.D., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “Their availability presents a significant public safety benefit for the millions of people in the United States who explore the nation’s wilderness every year.”

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Hikers can now carry a personal locator beacon that sends a signal to a satellite in an emergency. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
The new locator beacons are designed to be carried by an individual person instead of being carried on a boat or aircraft. The new beacons have global positioning system (GPS) technology, which makes it easier and quicker than before for NOAA satellites to pick up distress signals and relay an accurate location to rescuers.

The signals are relayed to the U.S. Mission Control Center at the NOAA Satellite and Information Center in Suitland, Maryland for processing.

In the United States, alerts from personal locator beacons are routed to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, the single federal agency for search and rescue in the lower 48 states.

The coordination center notifies the state rescue agency, or state police in the area where the beacon was activated.

All owners of PLBs and other types of 406 megahertz beacons are required by law to register them with NOAA. The registration includes critical information such as the owner’s name, address, telephone number and the PLB’s unique identification number. The distress signal is checked against a registration database, which contains information to locate the missing person.

“The AFRCC has many resources available to dispatch on a moment’s notice to aid in search and rescue efforts,” said Lt. Col. Scott Morgan, the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center commanding officer. “However, the desire is to use resources effectively, and PLB’s do that by pinpointing the location of the person in distress. The bottom line is we’ll be able to better locate individuals and save lives.”

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Three makes of personal locator beacons (Photo courtesy NOAA)
“A PLB is an effective tool only if people take the time to register it,” Morgan said. “With this information, the AFRCC can validate an alert with one phone call to the designated emergency contact, who can vouch for the whereabouts of the beacon’s owner.”

The success of an experimental Alaska PLB program has paved the way for nationwide usage of these beacons. The Alaska PLB program was set up to test the capabilities of personal locator beacons and their potential impact on satellite resources during wider public use. Since March 1995 the Alaska experiment has helped save nearly 400 lives while generating only a few false alerts.

At a conference hosted in May by the National Association for Search and Rescue, Lt. Col. Allan Knox of the AFRCC presented results of a study comparing PLBs to cell phones in attempts to communicate from wilderness areas across the United States. In about one-third of the tests it was not possible to make contact via cell phone, even in areas where there was cell coverage as shown on phone company maps.

The PLBs send out digital distress signals on the 406 megahertz frequency, which are detected by NOAA Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) and Polar orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (POES).

GOES, the first satellites to detect a beacon’s distress signal, hover in a fixed orbit above Earth and receive the signals, which contain registration information about the beacon and its owner.

The POES constantly circle the globe, enabling them to capture and accurately locate the alerts.

The satellites are part of the worldwide satellite search and rescue system called, COSPAS-SARSAT. The COSPAS-SARSAT system is a cluster of NOAA and Russian satellites that work together to detect distress signals anywhere in the world from personal locator beacons and beacons aboard ships and airplanes.