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The Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

In our previous articles, we have discussed the common sense and virtually cost free measures that you can take to make your time in the mountains safer and more enjoyable.

In this article we look at some of the additional measures that you, can and should, take to make sure that you are yours are safe.

We are going to talk about PLBs, or Personal Locator Beacons. How many times recently have we heard about people going missing and the massive search and rescue efforts that have gone into finding them, or not finding them.

If these people had possessed a PLB, not only would the SAR, Search And Rescue, effort have been more efficient and cheaper, but they would have been found in a fraction of the time.

So what is a PLB?

Photo 1 of The Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
ACR ResQlink 400 PLB

A PLB is a Personal Locator Beacon, similar to an EPIRB or ELT. Once the PLB is activated, a signal is sent to the COSPAS SARSAT satellites. These are a global network of SAR satellites. What is important to understand here, is that no matter where you are on the globe, your signal will be received and the satellite knows where you are.

Once received by the satellite, a signal is sent to the nearest receiving station on earth, known as the LUT, or Local User Terminal.

From here, the message is transferred to the MCC or Mission Control Centre. From here a Search and Rescue Mission is initiated employing whichever resources are deemed to be the most appropriate.

All of this will take a matter of minutes and all the time, while the PLB is transmitting, your location is known.

Once you’ve activated your PLB, what should you do?

Always stay with your PLB. The emergency services will know where your PLB is located but this is no use if you wander off. If you have more than one PLB in your party, wait until the battery on the first one has died before activating a second one. Apart from causing confusion, the signals may interfere with each other. Typical battery life, while activated, is around 24 hours. If your battery dies, do not move, your rescuers will have recorded the location of the signal and be on their way….

A lot of PLBs have incredible accuracy down to 3-5 meters and will be updated every five minutes or so. In a recent case with a climber trapped on Mt Aspiring, the SAR knew that the man was alive because the PLB had moved a short distance to where the climber had dug a snow cave.


Photo 2 of The Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
Garmin InReach Mini

Your location will determine the length of time it will take for a rescuer to be with you, but you can be sure that someone is on their way.
The dilemma of having a PLB is knowing when to activate it. I’m sure that most of us would prefer to try to get ourselves out of trouble before “bothering” others, but there are times when you shouldn’t hesitate. An extreme medical emergency is one of these cases. This includes a severe break, trauma, stroke or heart attack.

There will be many others, but the rule is that if you think a life is in danger, activate the PLB. No one will blame you for being over cautious but we cannot bring back a life that could have been saved.

At 4x4Explorer, we have carried a PLB for many years and have added another item to our safety equipment. We recently invested in a Garmin InReach mini. This is an excellent piece of equipment because, as well as being a PLB, it allows us to send text messages via satellite.

Quite often when I’m away, I will send a message to my partner just to reassure her that I have arrived at my planned destination and that all is well. It is also extremely useful if you get stuck and can’t self-recover or if you suffer a mechanical breakdown. In most cases, these are not life threatening and wouldn’t warrant activating the PLB, but good to know that someone knows your problem and may come to help.

Also, if a medical emergency has occurred, it is a way of notifying SAR what to expect on arrival, greatly speeding things up.

Photo 3 of The Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
KTI PLB

The costs of PLBs have fallen dramatically over the last few years. The device that we use is a KTI PLB which retails for around $360. It has a battery life of 20 years and will fit in your pocket. It’s waterproof, floats and may save your life. At $18 per year, there is no excuse leaving home without one!!!!!

The Garmin InReach Mini retails at around $560, which is not far off the price of a decent brand mud tyre or a few tanks of gas.

Whatever your outdoor activities involve, we cannot recommend strongly enough carrying some sort of PLB. I know that many 4WD Clubs now own them and that carrying them on club trips is mandatory.

We hope that you have found this article enjoyable and informative. Stay safe, and we look forward to meeting you out on the tracks!

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