Be prepared: Happy campers use GPS beacons

David Maille is a Vermont scout testing search-and-rescue devices that transmit data to the Air Force center run by Lt. Col. Scott Morgan.

Olivier Douliery

Boy Scouts in Vermont are adding an intergovernmental safety device to their backpacks.

For the first time, personal locator beacons (PLBs) became available for public sale or rental July 1 in the Green Mountain State, and later in all 48 contiguous states.

The search-and-rescue effort is a joint venture by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center in Langley, Va., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's U.S. Mission Control Center, and the Vermont state police and Civil Air Patrol.

Vermont was chosen as the test site because of its dense forests, abundant hiking and skiing trails, and large numbers of tourists, said Lt. Col. Scott Morgan, commander of the Air Force center. Each year, about 30 people go missing there, he said.

The beacons have been available for more than 20 years to airplanes and ships, Morgan said, but the Federal Communications Commission prohibited public use of the 406-MHz frequency, except for a trial in Alaska. Last year, FCC amended Part 95 of its rules to authorize the frequency for PLBs.

The program kicked off this summer at an intergovernmental ceremony on the Ellipse near the White House. Representatives of the Air Force, NOAA and three PLB manufacturers joined Vermont Boy Scout troops 42 and 759, which will test the beacons on camping trips.

Don't leave home

FCC has approved three PLBs: the GyPSI 406 from ACR Electronics Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; the FastFind Plus from McMurdo Pains Wessex of Portsmouth, U.K.; and the MicroPLB from Microwave Monolithics Inc. of Simi Valley, Calif.

Deputy NOAA administrator James R. Mahoney advised recreational hikers and campers, 'Before you leave on your next outing to a remote area, pack a 406-MHz beacon in your bag.'

Ajay Mehta, program manager for NOAA's Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking system (SARSAT) in Suitland, Md., said PLBs have helped rescue more than 150 people in Alaska since 1994.

In a recent case, a hunter's snowmobile broke down in a remote area where the temperature was minus 19 degrees. The hunter triggered a PLB, which sent a signal to a NOAA satellite that relayed it to Alaska state troopers. A rescue team picked up the hunter safely.

'This is the best of government and the private sector, working on something in partnership that will save many lives,' Mahoney said.

The scouts from Troop 42 took a 10-hour bus ride from Georgia, Vt., to attend the ceremony.

For them, the beacons 'are like an insurance policy,' said Keith Edson, scoutmaster of Troop 42. 'You hope you never have to use it.'

In their test of the beacons, the scouts will hike into Vermont's Green Mountains and activate a 406-MHz distress signal to NOAA's COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system, a cooperative program between the United States and Russia. COSPAS is an acronym of a translation of the Russian phrase 'space system for the search of vessels in distress.'

Bouncing blips

The COSPAS constellation of polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites will retransmit the signal to NOAA's Mission Control Center, which will validate the signal and relay it through the Air Force center to Vermont's 24-hour search-and-rescue center.

There, officials can pinpoint the location and other data such as who has the beacon and how many are in the party. The Vermont State Police will then send a rescue team.

The three cell-phone-sized PLBs work in different ways, Morgan said. The FastFind Plus, for example, has its own Global Positioning System receiver and transmitter. The GyPSI works with a handheld GPS unit to obtain the coordinates.

Most PLBs at first will sell for $750 to $1,200, Morgan said. Eventually campers will rent them from recreational stores, and the price likely will drop to about $500.

One reason public use was so long delayed was the shortage of government resources to track beacons in large numbers, Morgan said. The solution was to connect state and federal search-and-rescue resources.

'But the big question all state coordinators are asking is how often these things will go off,' said Lt. Donald Patch of the Vermont State Police.

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