Personal Locator Beacons Get Green Light

From today Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) can legally be used on land in the UK.

Another rescue under way on Snowdon, 125 kb
Another rescue under way on Snowdon
© Sean Kelly, Feb 2006

PLBs are compact distress radiobeacons that interface with the international Cospas-Sarsat satellite system for search and rescue, and when activated they send a distress signal. The units come in two types. The best for outdoor users is probably 406Mhz type, which includes location information in its signal. Some also transmit a 121.5MHz homing signal and some models include inbuilt GPS which sends location position within a few minutes of switching the unit on.

Previously the technology had been permitted only for maritime and aviation use, but a change in legislation by OFCOM, the Government regulatory authority for broadcasting and telecoms, has put it within reach of climbers and hillwalkers for the first time. While use of PLBs may reduce search times and has the potential to make life easier for air crew and Mountain Rescue Teams, the possibilities for erroneous or frivolous use are also obvious.

The police across the UK are the co-ordinating authority for all land-based search and rescue incidents. Deputy Chief Constable Andy Cowie is the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland lead on Search and Rescue, whilst Deputy Chief Constable Ian Shannon is the lead in England and Wales.

In a joint statement, they said:

'This legislative change will allow members of the public to use handheld PLB devices on land anywhere in the UK which when activated, will send a Distress Alert message that will be picked up by satellite and relayed via the UK Mission Control Centre (UKMCC) direct to the authorities.'

'The UKMCC, co-located with the Air Rescue Co-ordination Centre (ARCC), currently at RAF Kinloss, will receive, process and verify co-ordinates for activations before informing the relevant Police Force via the Force Operations Centre.'

'The Police Service has been at the forefront throughout 2010-11, in planning these changes and colleagues in Police Forces across the UK are fully aware of the changes in legislation. We have worked with the Ministry of Defence, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, the Department for Transport and OFCOM to get the necessary protocols in place to deal effectively with a PLB activation.'

'Mountain and Lowland Search and Rescue Teams are busy all year round' they added, 'and if we can take advantage of today's technology to help manage and minimise the risk to rescuers and help speed up the whole rescue process, in an emergency, there is no doubt we can save lives that might otherwise be lost. It will also help reduce the burden on volunteer rescue teams and searchers across the UK. Satellite coverage is much wider than mobile coverage and we have to take advantage of that.'

Fast Find, 131 kb
Fast Find
© McMurdo

For the system to work smoothly, users should register their PLB in the UK or in their home country, using the registration card provided, and giving details of a nominated person the police can contact for further information in the event of an alert on land. That nominated person may be able to provide rescuers with details of any relevant medical conditions, clothing, equipment, number of people in the party or other important information.

Commenting on the change in legislation Ross Wilkinson, Global Sales Director of McMurdo Ltd, a manufacturer of PLBs, was sounding positive - as well he might.

'We have been campaigning for a number of years to permit the use of PLBs on land in the UK, which have been permitted for use in the maritime and aviation environments, as well as on land in numerous countries around the world for many years' he said.

'In 2010 alone 2,338 people were rescued in 641 distress situations globally using information provided by the COSPAS SARSAT system. This change in legislation is a real breakthrough in the safety of outdoor enthusiasts venturing in to remote areas of the UK. [McMurdo's] Fast Find takes the 'search' out of 'search and rescue' and will ultimately reduce costs to these emergency responders.'

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