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I'm considering buying a personal locator beacon.

As I understand it they should only be activated in case of dire emergency. What happens if it is set off accidentally while at home? What about somewhere remote?

If it makes a difference, I'm in Australia.

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drop it and run.... (obviously don't do this) –  Liam Aug 19 at 14:08
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Wait for the rescue people, apologise, and pay the bill. –  gerrit Aug 19 at 15:48
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Most European rescue agencies are staffed by volunteers/armed forces and don't charge @gerrit! –  Liam Aug 20 at 8:36
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@Liam Someone is paying for the helicopter... –  gerrit Aug 20 at 15:32
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Mountain rescue helicopters in the UK are ran by the RAF @gerrit . I don't think the MOD accepts donations. –  Liam Aug 20 at 15:36

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

They're not very easy to activate. Here's a video showing how to activate the one I own. It's a multi-step process. You have to flip up a tab (which I think involves cracking a thin plastic connection), use the tab to pull off the cover, unfurl the antenna, and then press the on button, which is hidden until you get the cover off.

Anyway, I did find a description here of what happened when a skier accidentially activated his. Apparently he had his PLB in his pocket during a ski run, and somehow knocked the cover off, didn't realize that the cover was off, and then the "on" button got pressed. Seems like a very unlikely sequence of events, but I guess out of some large number of users, freak accidents like this are going to happen.

What happened next in his case was that the Air Force called his wife, his wife called him on his cell phone, and they were able to straighten things out over the phone. He wasn't fined or thrown in jail. Presumably the Air Force called his home phone because he'd supplied that phone number when he registered the unit.

If you accidentally activate it somewhere that you can't be contacted by phone, then I don't see any way for them to distinguish that from a real emergency. The most serious consequences would then be for whoever's trying to rescue you. If it's a volunteer search and rescue team, then they have to leave work, roll out of bed or whatever, head off into the wilderness, and possibly put themselves in danger searching for you. It's very common for search and rescue teams to get hurt, especially in mountain environments. You want to be very careful not to put these folks in danger unnecessarily. There are probably two reasonable options if you do activate it unnecessarily and don't have phone contact. (1) You could hike out to where you can get phone service and prevent a search from being initiated. (2) You could stay put and make it easy for them to find you. This is what is usually advised in an actual emergency: just stay put.

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If you should accidentally activate a PLB in an area without phone coverage, you should get to phone coverage as quickly (and safely) as possible. Rescues take some time to initiate, and you may be able to avoid some unnecessary work on their part. –  Felix Aug 19 at 17:41
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This highlights the importance of registering your PLB. I read recently that about 70% of PLBs are unregistered. If your PLB is registered, and the authorities can contact your family, it can give the rescuers a much better idea of who they're looking for, what sorts of equipment they might have, etc. –  nhinkle Aug 19 at 17:44
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@Felix: I've revised my answer to discuss two possible options. –  Ben Crowell Aug 19 at 18:35
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@romkyns: AFAIK it can't be turned off once it's activated. Even if it could, that seems like a bad idea, since then they wouldn't know where you were if you moved. –  Ben Crowell Aug 20 at 0:52
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"It's very common for search and rescue teams to get hurt, especially in mountain environments." -- that's especially because they go out even when conditions are dire. Normally they wouldn't be in any more danger than the person who (in this case accidentally) activates the beacon, would they? Obviously if they arrive and you are in fact in trouble in a precarious position, they might then take unusual risks, but they won't rush out recklessly, action-movie style, flinging themselves off cliffs to get to the beacon ASAP. I hope. –  Steve Jessop Aug 20 at 10:10

The first thing you need to answer this question is to know who will be responding when your beacon goes off. The beacon manufacturer should be able to provide you with this information. Then you can find out what their policies are in regards to false alarms. The responsder may vary depending on where you are traveling. Often, the very first response is to contact an emergency contact phone number you provide when you register the unit, to find out whether it is a false alarm or not. In this case, you tell them it was an accident, and the case is closed with no more trouble.

But if you do set it off accidently, and know that it happened, your best option is to make sure everyone knows it was an accident as quickly as possible. If it happens at home, immediately contact the responders, and let them know what happened.

If it happens somewhere remote, you may still be able to call and let them know what’s happened. If you can’t, stay put until the rescuers come. You’ll need to apologize, and depending on their policies, maybe pay for their time and expense. But by staying in your last known location, you will have minimized their time and trouble to reach you. You may be facing fines and rescue costs for a false alarm, but at least you minimized the rescue costs. Also, a lot of agencies won’t fine you for an accident, because they don’t want to discourage people from carrying beacons.

If it happens somewhere remote, and you don’t know that it’s happened, your rescuers will be relying on the plans you left before heading out (you did leave detailed written plans, right?). This will still let them find you fairly easily because they know where you expect to be. In either of these two cases, some agencies will charge you for the rescue, some won’t. If no one knows where you might be, except for a last known point, and a rescue has to start a serious search, it could get expensive, and a lot more groups will charge you because their expense was high, and you failed to follow the good practices that would help them minimize the cost (not setting off the beacon in the first place, and not letting someone at home know where you were going).

All the models I’ve seen are very hard to set off accidentally, and if you store it and pack it with reasonably care, it won’t happen.

My experience is in the US. Rescue policy is determined very regionally, often on a park by park, or at most state by state basis. I’ve got no idea how it would be handled in Australia.

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Nice answer, +1. I'm not sure if staying put is always going to be the best option. Yes, that's certainly what search and rescue advises when you have an actual emergency and the only information they have is the route info you left with your family or friends. This situation might be somewhat different, because (a) you're not actually in danger, so you aren't going to put yourself in worse danger by moving, and (b) if you do move, the PLB is going to notify search and rescue of where you've moved to. I think it might be a judgment call as to whether to try to hike out or not. –  Ben Crowell Aug 19 at 18:39

In Australia, you are advised to call the Rescue Coordination Centre on 1800 641 792 if possible to ensure a search and rescue operation is not commenced.

See http://www.amsa.gov.au/search-and-rescue/rcc/

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That page also requests that you switch off the beacon, as well as calling the Rescue Coordination Centre. –  Tom W Aug 20 at 12:25

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