Cormorant Hoist

Emergency Beacon Musings

Recently, I have been considering hiking with a small lightweight GPS with simply a LCD screen to display coordinates. I’ve seen a small unit that displays Latitude and Longitude and ideally I would want something that could show UTM coordinates as well.

I do not want to hike with a full featured GPS, but having your coordinates handy to pinpoint your location on a map and confirm your navigation could be a useful safety backup while out in the woods.

Cormorant Hoist
Yes that's me, and no that's not my usual job, unfortunately...

The other thing I would like to start hiking with is an emergency satellite beacon. I work in Search and Rescue and see the benefits of having an instant position and notification in an emergency. This can save the time it takes to identify an emergency situation such as a lost hiker, which could be days before your scheduled exit from the wilderness. It also saves SAR crews the search effort and moves the emergency more quickly to the rescue phase.

So, my thinking is if a company could come out with an emergency beacon that also had a coordinate display that would be the perfect combination of a safety device.

Apparently this device is already being made and it’s called the ACR SARLink View PLB. Which brings me to my next debate, the ins-and-outs of using a Personal Locator Beacon versus the increasingly popular SPOT Beacon.

To PLB or not to PLB, that is the question.

There are a couple of essential differences to look at between these two systems. First off, both take a different approach to signaling a satellite in an emergency:

PLB’s use the same alerting technology as emergency beacons in aircraft and marine vessels. The newer PLB’s use two frequencies to transmit a distress:

The COSPAS-SARSAT System

1. A 406 MHz distress signal is sent out in bursts by the beacon and is picked up by the COSPAS-SARSAT system. A government maintained network of satellites dedicated to search and rescue that use Doppler-shift to predict the distress beacon location. (More about this here)

2. A 121.5 MHz signal is also broadcast continuously from the beacon. This signal is used by SAR aircraft to home in on your location once they are in the general area. Commercial aircraft also monitor this frequency, so if they are flying above they will report hearing a distress signal.

These signals are sent directly to the Mission Control Centers (MCC) in the country responsible for SAR in the area. The MCC then directs the beacon information and location to the appropriate Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) and they coordinate a SAR response.

Some of the PLB’s now include GPS coordinates in their distress message as well, which again improves your probability of being found.

The SPOT Beacons use a similar network of satellites, however they run on the commercially maintained Globalstar network:

When the distress button is pressed on a SPOT the GPS location is sent through Globalstar’s satellite data channels to SPOT’s own emergency center located in Texas. Their emergency operators then forward this information on to the appropriate country’s RCC to conduct the search and rescue.

SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger vs. ACR SARLink View

 

The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger

SPOT Beacon

These little orange beacons are becoming increasingly popular with outdoor adventure enthusiasts. While PLBs have been around for quite some time, SPOT has seemingly taken over the market through its aggressive strategic marketing.

For tracking purposes and best reception the SPOT must be on the outside of your pack, ideally facing the sky. It is waterproof up to 1 meter and I know of a number of kayakers using it as their safety device.

The good

The SPOT is smaller and lighter than any other PLB I’ve seen on the market at 147 grams. This alone appeals to my sense of packing light. Especially for a device that you hopefully never actually have to use.

SPOT has focused its devices on not only emergency use, but also using it as a communication device to stay in touch with family and friends to let them know your location and that you are ok throughout your adventures.

The GPS Messenger is the SPOT model I would be considering for its small form factor and stand-alone usage. Some of their new models can also link up with smartphones or GPS to actually send satellite text messages.

The other big benefit for the SPOT Communicator is that it takes three AAA lithium batteries that can be purchased and replaced for under $10.

The not so good

My main perceived drawback to the SPOT is its lifetime costs. The beacon itself isn’t overly pricey, however it requires a yearly subscription fee of $100 for emergency services. In addition, if you want to use more of the other texting and tracking features there are further subscription costs.

The SPOT also as of yet does not contain any LCD to display your coordinates. As I mentioned, some versions tie in to smartphones and GPS devices, which could display maps and coordinates, but I’d like to stay away from carrying more electronics on the trail. And, while I often bring my phone on hikes, I’d shy away from relying on it as a safety device. As was demonstrated during my hike in Keji, if you’re not careful you can end up with a dead iPhone battery pretty quick.

ACR SARLink View PLB-350C

In my search for an emergency beacon, it seems that the SARLink View has the best feature set for what I would be looking for in a safety device.

ACR SARLink View PLB

The good

The SARLink View is a hand-held PLB weighing in at 258 grams. It looks to be well built and is also waterproof up to 5m.

The key benefit for me is that it has a screen that displays your Lat & Long coordinates, however, activating the GPS to find your location would use your battery life, more on this further down. I also don’t think you can change it to display my preference, UTM.

Although the SARLink View costs almost twice as much as a SPOT Communicator, the big benefit over the SPOT is that the PLB does not have a yearly subscription cost in order to use it as an emergency beacon.

The not so good

With regards to the battery, the ACR SARLink has an internal lithium battery that is non-user-replaceable. It costs around $150 to replace and must be done at specified servicing centers. The catch is that it must be replaced after any emergency activation as well as every 5 years.

While the standard emergency services are no cost, the SARLink can be used to send “I’m OK” messages like the SPOT. However, this service does have a yearly subscription fee. In addition, due to the limited battery life, you have a total of 410 “I’m OK” messages and only 60 messages with GPS coordinates that can be sent in the lifetime of the battery. This means you are also limited to testing/checking your own GPS coordinates 60 times, which makes it much more of a safety device than a navigation device.

So what’s the deal?

Keep in mind that I don’t own either of these units, this information is just a collection of the published features and the experiences I’ve seen through my work.

Once you take into account the yearly subscription fees to use each units’ special features as well as the battery replacement costs of the ACR, then both end up being very close in price after a five year period. Thus, price becomes less of a factor between the two.

Cormorant Helicopter Spotter Window
I see you... or at least you really, really hope I do.

If the SARLink View had standard user replaceable/rechargeable batteries and could display UTM coordinates I think this would be the unit I would choose. As strictly an emergency beacon it may be the better choice as it offers free service, but keep in mind the 5 year battery replacement.

However, I like the smaller form factor and tracking features of the SPOT, which allows people to follow your progress and allows you to save your route afterward.

Neither beacon can be guaranteed to establish satellite contact at all times depending on clear sight-lines to the sky, environmental conditions, and satellite coverage. However, some users have reported that the PLBs often have stronger broadcasting frequencies and may produce better results in areas with trees or in tall canyons.

I feel that with the SPOT tracking enabled, even though you may be unable to reach a signal in your current position, as long as searchers have a relatively close last known position that could assist greatly regardless. It may also make the difference in being found in the case that you were unable to activate your distress beacon due to being separated from your pack, etc, but at the very least your emergency contact could notify the authorities where to start a search.

Cormorant Helicopter in the air
Anything that helps these guys find you is a good thing

I’m not a fan of subscription fees, but I’m also not a fan of expensive and cumbersome batteries. If SPOT added a coordinate display I think that would possibly be my choice due to the added functionality of the tracking features.

At this time I feel that neither the SPOT Communicator or the ACR SARLink are a perfect system.

Emergency beacons shouldn’t be relied upon over careful planning, proper survival equipment, and outdoors experience. However, both beacons would do a great deal to improve your safety and chances of rescue.

One thought on “Emergency Beacon Musings”

  1. To update, I sent a little email to SPOT to see about the possibility of adding a small LCD coordinate screen to one of their emergency beacon models down the line. Read more about it here.

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