Distress and stress are not the same thing

SARSAT satelliteThe National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) put out a press release to brag that 353 people were rescued in 2007 with the aid of personal locator beacons.

Of the 353 rescues for 2007, 235 people were saved at sea, 30 were rescued from downed aircraft, and 88 were saved with help from their PLBs — the highest total since PLBs became operational nationwide in 2003. The total rescues in 2007 mark an increase from 272 the previous year.

Personal locator beacons have become cheaper and more commonly used by civilians, so it’s not surprising that the number of rescues has increased.

I’m all for safety, and I know that if my life was in peril while in the wilderness, I’d be grateful for a rescue, but I wonder about the effects this technology will have on rescue agencies and volunteer organizations.

One of the rescue “highlights” cited by NOAA is the aid given to a 71-year-old hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail, who was too exhausted to continue his hike.

Admittedly, I don’t know many details of this rescue, so perhaps this was a legitimate, life-threatening situation. But I know there are thousands of cases every year in which hikers get caught ill-prepared for conditions and unaware of the risks.

PLBs may soon do what cellphones and GPS units now do for some people in the wilderness, provide them a false sense of security.

PLB manufacturers include warnings like this:

This Personal Locator Beacon should only be used in situations of grave and imminent danger, and only as a last resort when all means of self-rescue have been exhausted.

But some people seem think their means of self-rescue has been exhausted because they forgot a flashlight or a raincoat.


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