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?
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.