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Personal beacons help guide rescuers.

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

A personal locator beacon is a pricey piece of technology, but some search and rescue workers hope they become as useful for outdoor adventurers as they have been for boaters and pilots.

The federal government approved personal locator beacons, or PLBs, for use nationwide last July after a successful nine-year test in Alaska.

Since their approval, 45 Oregon residents have registered their PLBs with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Oregon is poised to become the second state in the nation to be tied-in electronically to the NOAA's search and rescue information center.

That computer connection means that the state Emergency Management Office will be automatically notified once a PLB signal is activated here, said George Kleinbaum, state search and rescue coordinator. Only the governor's signature on the paperwork approving the new computer link stands in the way of that connection, he said.

When activated, the beacons, which cost $600 to $1,000, transmit a signal to satellites that are part of NOAA's Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking System. That international rescue system has been in place since 1982, responding to endangered boaters and pilots who use similar beacons.

The system is credited with saving 17,000 lives worldwide, including more than 4,500 aviators and boaters in the United States, since its inception. PLBs saved more than 200 lives during the test run in Alaska, according to the NOAA.

Since the system was approved for use on land in the lower 48 states in July 2003, 1,200 people have registered the handheld devices about the size of a TV remote control, said Lt. Dan Karlson, operations support officer for the NOAA's search and rescue department.

Only one actual rescue has been credited to a PLB since its approval. In November, Ohio outdoorsman Carl Skalak, trapped in foul weather in the Adirondacks, activated his beacon and was successfully plucked from the backcountry by an Army helicopter hours later.

But the rescued 55-year-old also represents a cautionary tale for beacon users because two weeks later Skalak returned to the spot to retrieve the gear he'd left behind and called for rescue a second time.

A helicopter was sent in but conditions weren't nearly as perilous and the government filed charges against him for faulty use of a beacon.

Outdoors and backpacking Web sites have been lively with chatter since then over whether the PLBs actually will be a blessing or a curse. While they make rescues easier, they may inspire people to take more risks or expect rescue from unpleasant, rather than life-or-death, conditions.

Kleinbaum said he expects only negligible misuse of the devises. "Canada has had PLBs for 12 years with no problems. I would assume we're going to have the same reaction here," he said. "At the cost of these devices, people will not be taking any more chances than they were before."

The risk of misuse is worth the benefit of speedy rescues, he said.

Last year, search and rescue teams responded to 319 calls of lost people on land and 39 on water, according to state records.

Rescuers went out on 115 land rescue missions and 38 water rescues where the location of the parties was known. They found 89 percent of the people they were looking for alive and 9 percent dead, Kleinbaum said. The remaining 2 percent were never found, he said.

Locally, John Miller, coordinator for Lane County Search and Rescue, looks forward to seeing the PLBs in use.

"People are only going to be using them when they really need to. I think it's going to be a good tool," he said. "You actually pull the search element out of search and rescue. It's significantly less time to find and treat and recover."

PERSONAL LOCATOR BEACONS

How they work: Once activated by the user, the radio signal is detected by satellites. The signal is relayed to the NOAA's search and rescue center, which relays the information to the originating state.

The units transmit on a high frequency and also have a built-in, low-power homing beacon that transmits on a lower one. Once the satellite system narrows the search field, rescuers home-in using the lower frequency. Some PLBs also allow Global Positioning System units to be integrated into the signal. This GPS-encoded signal improves the location accuracy down to an area roughly the size of a football field.

Available: Through outdoor outfitters and online. Cost is $600 to $1,000.

To register: www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov/

More information: www.sarsat.noaa.gov/emerbcns.html
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Title Annotation:Accidents; The governor's signature will make Oregon the second state with a computer link to the NOAA data center
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 27, 2004
Words:757
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