Big Bend NP, 2007
A Guide To Personal Locator Beacons: EPIRB's and SPOT
When I'm not a slave to the dollar working in the oilfield I try and get away to places where there are good opportunities for nature photography. I enjoy getting as far off the beaten path as possible, hiking remote mountain trails, many times alone, in search of that perfect shot or a chance to wet a fly in a pristine stream.
In the old days I never thought much about what might happen if I got in a situation where I was physically unable to walk back to civilization. Locations such as Big Bend National Park shown in the photo above, have no cell phone service throughout most of the park, so you might as well have a rock in your pocket to throw at mountain lions instead of a phone. Now there are options within reach of almost any person's budget that will allow you to summon help or even send a one way message and allow friends and family to track your hike on their home computer.
According to the National Association for Search and Rescue, more than 50,000 search and rescue missions are initiated each year in the United States alone. Many of these missions are undertaken without search and rescue parties knowing the exact location of the missing party. This causes valuable resources to be wasted and often costs the lives of the missing party who would have survived had they not been exposed to the elements or received medical attention. Each part of the country has its hazards to hikers. Where I spend a lot of my time, in the desert Southwest, it is dehydration and heat exhaustion by day and hypothermia at night.
No Service !
There are thousands of square miles of land in the United States where cell phones do not work. Now the government, in it's infinite wisdom, has mandated that analog cellular is going to be phased out this year and many phones such as Verizon and Sprint will no longer be able to roam on analog in remote areas. Onstar relied heavily on analog cellular to reach out in remote areas but now their new service uses regular digital cell phone towers and does not work in all the places it used to. Depending on what carrier you are using one phone may work in a remote forest while another may not. T-Mobile for example does not work very well off of major highways. It is most likely that if you hike off the beaten path, you will not have a cell phone signal in many places. Because of these limitations of cell phones, you may need another means of summoning help. Also, if you are snowed in up along a mountain pass or infrequently traveled road, your only option may be a device such as a personal emergency locator beacon or a device called SPOT.
GMRS and FRS Radios
In addition to my trusty Canon 40D camera, I carry in my backpack both a lightweight GMRS-FRS walkie talkie and a McMurdo Fastfind GPS Personal Locator Beacon satellite EPIRB.
The GMRS-FRS radio by Midland claims to have a 25 mile range. I find it realistically transmits and receives to about 5 miles on FRS and 10 on GMRS. I turn it on scan when I make camp and can eavesdrop on other hikers to get clues as to trail and weather conditions. Mine also picks up NOAA weather broadcasts. Many hikers carry them and there is a slim chance you can summon help by using one of them but the problem is that there are so many potential channels that people could be using and the possibility they are using a privacy code. If they have the privacy feature on then you can hear them but they will never hear you. In an emergency you could put your radio on scan until you find a conversation and attempt to break in if the other party does not have privacy enabled. This however is a very unreliable way to summon for help.
EPIRB stands for "Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon". Modern EPIRB's transmit on 406 megahertz and upon buying one you must register with NOAA, the government agency that monitors them in the USA. Upon activation by the user, (or immersion in water for some marine models) The beacon sends a signal to a satellite above the earth with your specific beacon code. A monitoring site will identify the owner and attempt to contact the emergency numbers they provided and also contact the US Coast Guard if near water and local authorities if on land. There are heavy fines and penalties for misuse and you may pay a fine for false alarms. Models such the McMurdo Fastfind GPS Personal Locator Beacon fit easily in a backpack or on a belt. Since these work by satellite you must be in an area without dense forest canopy above or rock overhangs.
A relatively new device called Spot Satellite Messenger with GPS Tracking can send a quick one way message to let friends and family know you are OK on your treck or to send a 911 message. The unit has to be out in the open and it can take up to 20 minutes to get connected and send a message. The device is easy to use, bright safety orange and uses two AA batteries. SPOT sells for about $150.00 and costs $99 per year to be a subscriber.
Once activated, SPOT will acquire its exact coordinates from the GPS network, and send that location along with a distress message to a GEOS International Emergency Response Center every five minutes until cancelled.
According to the manufacturer, SPOT's Emergency Response Center notifies the appropriate emergency responders based on your location and personal information – which may include local police, highway patrol, the Coast Guard, your country’s embassy or consulate, or other emergency response or search and rescue teams – as well as notifying your emergency contact persons about the receipt of a distress signal. The other half of the service is a software package where you set up your SPOT profile, which you can manage from any computer. With your SPOT ID number you can go to the company's Web site, log in, register your device, and configure your alerts. It can send three different types of messages: check-in messages, help requests, and emergency/911 messages. Each message is sent with information to help find your location, including your latitude and longitude, your device number, nearest town, and how far away it is, and a link to a Google Map with your position located on the map.
Both SPOT and the McMurdo Fastfind GPS Personal Locator Beacon work well almost every country in the world. EPIRB's do have better worldwide coverage however. Spot Satellite Messenger with GPS Tracking has some dead zones in southern Africa and the high arctic. Personal EPIRB's like the McMurdo cost more but do not require a yearly monitoring fee and do not have the ability to send non emergency messages. The SPOT uses 2 AA size lithium rechargeable batteries and has a standby life of 12 months. Battery life while on transmit is usually longer with a personal EPIRB and personal EPIRB's such as the Fastfind also transmit on 121.5 MHZ a continuous homing beacon for rescuers to follow. This is a nice feature for areas along the coast where the US Coast Guard patrols, but unfortunately few land based rescuers in national forests will have the required equipment to receive the signal. The Civil Air Patrol, which is often called in for searches, can sweep for a 121.5 Mhz beacon, which true EPIRB's like ACR and Mc Murdo are capable of. Weight is a big issue to hikers. SPOT weighs only 7.37 ounces and the McMurdo Fastfind weighs only 9 ounces, barely a noticeable difference. The McMurdo Fast-find is approximately 6 inches long and the SPOT measures just under 4 and a half inches.
On the technical level the McMurdo uses geostationary COSPAS-SARSAT satellites and SPOT uses communication satellites like the ones used by satellite phones. The McMurdo Fastfind uses the same technology that the beacons required to be carried commercial ships and airplanes do, which is designed first and foremost to be an official emergency distress system. with rigid specifications. While EPIRB distress signals are handled by government and international agencies, SPOT emergency messages are handled through a private company, the GEOS Emergency Response Center in Houston, Texas and it's support centers around the world. I've received feedback on this article from Civil Air Patrol or CAP search and rescue team leaders who have expressed frustration over the fact that the GEOS response center used by SPOT does not communicate well with their organization.
406 EPIRB's More Reliable For Distress Use
It is very important to know that 406 Mhz EPIRB devices are more rugged and robust than the SPOT products on the market. The signal EPIRB's use is transmitted on 406 Mhz, a lower frequency than the SPOT Satellite Messenger and other SPOT products. This enables the signal to penetrate cloud cover better. Also, true 406 Mhz EPIRB's use a full 5 watts of power, compared to only .4 watts used by SPOT products. This higher wattage, combined with a lower frequency, means that 406 EPIRB's can penetrate heavy cloud cover, tree cover, or perform better in marginal areas such as alongside cliffs. This means that for life and death situations, you'll be better served by a real EPIRB. The trade off in emergency functionality of an EPIRB vs. the message capability of the SPOT is something you must be aware of. I suppose that you could carry both if you could afford it and have the best of both worlds. For international travel, SPOT offers a variety of insurance plans which will pay for your extraction costs, including expenses for private search and rescue companies, etc.
Statistics on EPIRB response time are not readily available, but I'm pretty sure these devices do not need as long to start sending a distress call to satellites as the SPOT unit does. Many new EPIRB's such as the Fastfind do use GPS technology, like SPOT does, to identify the exact location of the distress call, but the difference is that the EPIRB will begin to transmit immediately, giving a rough indication of the users location and then as the internal GPS acquires the exact location it will add this information to the distress call being transmitted. The makers of SPOT claim that it has a 99.5 percent "up time" or connectivity but I've seen lots of posts from people such as climbers that there are indeed signal acquisition issues in canyons, along cliff walls, and in dense forest.
I personally carry the McMurdo Fastfind but there are times I wish that I had a SPOT to send a quick one-way family message. Update: Since I first wrote this article I have purchased and used a SPOT Satellite Messenger. I've used it on a couple of multi-day river trips and found that it worked very well, as far as tracking my trip and sending "I'm OK" messages to family. Just keep in mind that true EPIRB's are more rugged and reliable in life and death situations.
Although it is waterproof and floats the SPOT units are not designed to act as a emergency beacon onboard a boat, nor are personal EPIRB's. Boaters should instead use a regular sized 406 EPIRB unit that will activate when in contact with water and float.
Summary. For the serious hiker both types are worthy products. Also if you have any condition such as allergies to bee stings, etc either one is a good thing to have if you are going to be in a remote area. For everybody else, they're a great idea to have and could save your life or that of someone you love. Most people involved in search and rescue will tell you the same thing regarding SPOT Vs. EPIRB's, and that is for greater reliability and faster response, a 406 Mhz EPIRB type PLB is your best choice. If' you're wiling to understand the tradeoffs, then a SPOT device may work for you.