The personal locator beacon that bedeviled search and rescue authorities last month has not been activated since January 5, and it seems likely that the still-unknown person who owns the device has gotten the message on how to use it—and how not to.
From December 14 to January 5, the ACR PLB-300 beacon was activated nine times—eight times near Berthoud Pass, and a ninth north of Crested Butte. Unfortunately, the owner never registered the device, so he or she couldn’t be contacted.
After the fourth or fifth activation from the same device, the Clear Creek County Sheriff decided not to alert SAR teams anymore. Instead, authorities focused on trying to determine who owned the PLB, and on getting the word out to the public that there was a problem.
In a statement posted yesterday at Mountain Project, Paul “Woody” Woodward, president of the Alpine Rescue Team, said, “Through the efforts of ACR, REI, and the Clear Creek County Sheriff’s office, it was determined that this PLB was shipped from ACR to REI on July 1, 2009. It was further determined that 12 of these beacons where sold in Colorado between July 1 and December 13. The Clear Creek County Sheriff’s office made contact with the 12 owners that purchased the PLBs. Although no one has come forth and admitted that this was their beacon, there has not been an activation since these folks where contacted.
“It has always been felt that we didn’t need to know who the individual was, but instead that they be educated on the use of the PLB,” Woodward continued. “With the public awareness of this situation and the help of the sheriff’s office, media, and other Internet public forums, we feel this has been accomplished.”
Contacted today, Woodward said officials still don’t know why this PLB was activated so frequently. Because the beacon’s alert message was active for no more than 46 minutes at a time, Woodward speculated that the user may have switched it on when traversing an avalanche path, perhaps mistakenly thinking he or she owned an avalanche transceiver, or that the PLB should be activated just in case something went wrong. In other words: operator error.
Woodward said the take-home message for PLB users is they need to learn how to use these devices to prevent false alarms, and they need to register them so a simple phone call might prevent inadvertent SAR-team call-outs.
“It would be great if retailers could sit their customers down in front of a computer and get them registered right there,” Woodward said.
Despite the hassles of this series of incidents, Woodward pointed to some positives. “There’s been a huge education of the state coordinators [for personal locator beacon alerts],” he explained. “We can ask the right questions of the Air Force when one of these beacons is activated.”
Woodward just got a PLB himself. “I think they’re a good tool,” he said. “If I was going solo on an extended trip, I might want to take it. If something happened on day four of a 12-day trip, no one might know for eight days that I was even missing.”