Beacon of hope

🕔Jul 24, 2007

Boat…check. Paddle…check. Life jacket…check. Sunscreen…check. Three-month supply of oatmeal…check. PLB…huh?
When Smithers resident Deb Wellwood leaves this month on the trip of a lifetime, she’ll pack everything she needs to exist for three-and-a-half-months in a tandem sea kayak and travel up the Alaska Panhandle with her partner, Lothar Schaefer. For the first time, she will also be packing a PLB.
PLBs, or personal locator beacons, aren’t widely used in Canada, but have been raising controversy south of the border. It may soon become Oregon State law that climbers travelling above treeline on Mount Hood be required to carry the devices during winter months, while commercial guides would have to carry them year-round.
Canada’s National Search and Rescue Secretariat says it’s not aware of similar legislation pending in Canada, but that hasn’t stopped the discussion from spilling into northern territory.
“It doesn’t help you in an immediate emergency, say if you’re buried in an avalanche,” points out Smithers-based mountain guide Christoph Dietzfelbinger, who usually carries a radio in the backcountry for emergencies. “In most places, finding a person is not such a big deal. You’d have to make the whole population carry one if you were to use it for every mushroom picker and hunter who could get lost.”
It’s all about risk homeostasis, Dietzfelbinger says: the theory that increased safety measures will simply expand a person’s comfort level in threatening situations. “When things are safer and more efficient, people take more risks,” he says.
The same argument is fueling the debate in the US, where groups like the Climbers’ Access Fund and the Mountain Rescue Association have decried government interference in an activity that has traditionally been an every-adventurer-for-himself pursuit. The question being asked is this: while policy-makers seek to make mountain travel safer, will the bill inevitably result in more inexperienced climbers getting in over their heads?
George Field, public safety specialist with Alberta Parks and Protected Areas, agrees that outdoor pursuits are at risk of getting over-regulated, but says similar arguments were presented when avalanche transceivers—now widely used for winter backcountry travel, though not required by law—first came on the market.
“Common sense to me says if you go on a big trekking or canoe trip in the northern reaches of Canada and get into trouble, do you perish when you had the chance to survive or do you have a safety net?” Field says.
“From my perspective, if a beacon goes off and we have a location to go to…that would obviously save a lot of time in saving someone who is hurt. The only thing better is a satellite phone,” he says, noting that the biggest drawback to PLBs is that they don’t allow for two-way conversation, which would inform rescuers of the nature of the incident before setting out.
PLBs work on the same 406-MHz frequency used by emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) and emergency position-indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs) in airplanes and watercraft. When manually activated, they send a distress signal via satellite to the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, Ont., which then notifies the nearest search and rescue detachment.
PLB calls are automatically treated as serious emergencies, with helicopters deployed immediately, says Whitney Numan, search manager with Bulkley Valley Search and Rescue.
“Our biggest concern with PLBs is false alarms…people going ‘Let’s see if this works.’ Obviously there would be a cost associated with that,” he says. But evidence of their use in northern British Columbia still appears sparse, as Numan says he’s not aware of ever having responded to a PLB call in the area. “I don’t think it’s used that much yet. It’s kind of interesting—I think people look at the expense and choose not to.”
While PLBs are widely available in the United States through REI, retailing for between $450 and $650 US, they are only sold through a selection of marine shops here in Canada. Wellwood special-ordered hers through Aquabatics in Smithers.
In Canada, the small devices, which are approximately the size of an avalanche transceiver and weigh about 12 ounces, must be registered with the Personal Emergency Beacon Registry, where personal information (such as medical history) is stored for use in an emergency.
Derek Amos, air assistant co-ordinator with Search and Rescue Co-ordination in Victoria, says the organization doesn’t have information on successful rescues associated with PLBs, but added that their usefulness is undeniable. “I think more and more outfitting groups are starting to use PLBs, but it’s one of these things that in hindsight you think, ‘oh, I need one.’ I’m even starting to think about it,” he says.
“I would strongly recommend it anyway because it cuts down the time in trying to get you. They are a fantastic tool when deployed in a survival situation…it’s well worth the five or six hundred dollars, especially for outfitting groups.”
Wellwood made the decision to order her beacon when her father sent her an article about them. She debated the pros and cons of purchasing a satellite phone, but decided on the PLB because of its one-time cost, ease of use (imagine trying to place a call on rough seas) and rumours that sat phones can be unreliable.
“It’s better than having nothing,” she says, noting that the pair will likely end up paddling their kayak into open seas. “I would like to have some kind of backup.”