Personal Locator Beacons

9:28 p.m. on November 6, 2010 (EDT)
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Anyone have experience with them? My father in law does a lot of solo hiking and climbing and has nothing like these. I'm thinking about getting him one for X-mas, but don't want to get him a crappy brand.

 

I've read great things about SPOT, but a lot of people also say their customer services are a nightmare. I was thinking about alleviating some of this by purchasing it from LL Bean to utilize their legendary customer service. some of the complaints were that the item didn't work at all, but they had a hard time returning it. No problems there if I get it from Bean's.

 

So: Which brands/models are good? Which ones should I avoid?

 

Thanks as always.

4:11 p.m. on November 8, 2010 (EST)
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Well here are the candidates:

http://www.rei.com/search?query=locatoor+beacons&button.x=14&button.y=11

You can check out the reviews.

I have a 5 year old ACR Personal Locator Beacon (plb) and I plan on buying a new one rather than getting a new battery for my "brick".

I'm leaning toward the Mcmurdo fastfind due to price and weight.  Haven't made a final decision, however.

I've been carrying my plb on all solo hikes for about 5 years.  It is reassuring to know that I can call out in an emergency. 

7:26 p.m. on November 8, 2010 (EST)
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I have several articles here on Trailspace about SPOT (early model),  and locator devices in general, plus other comments. In addition, Delorme and SPOT have collaborated on a combination of the new Delorme PN-60 and the SPOT Communicator that allows customized text messages to be sent, as opposed to the basic SOS/911 or canned message. This combination was commented on in the OR Show blog for the summer 2010 OR Show.

You can get SPOT and the Delorme-SPOT combination at REI, which has an excellent return policy, as well as EMS, which also has a good return policy.

Most of the problems that get reported about SPOT are "operator error" that are readily solved by reading the manual for the newer Spot Messenger and Spot Communicator, or by reading the user agreement thoroughly. Probably the biggest complaint has been SPOT's policy of automatically renewing your usage contract and rescue insurance contract annually - seems a lot of people didn't read that part (it is not all that hidden). The philosophy has been that most people will want to continue using their SPOT and the rescue insurance (basically the same model as the PLB people have used for years and many insurance companies). But, since it is an "opt-out" approach, a number of people forgot a year later that they had signed up for the automatic renewals, hence were very disturbed when this item appeared in their credit card bill. The electronic performance has also been much improved over the original SPOT 1 version, thanks to detailed comments from certain reviewers and test people.

To repeat part of what was said in the various posts and articles, there are several categories of devices to request assistance:

1. locator beacons - this includes the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) that is made by ACR, McMurdo, and a couple others, EPIRB, and aircraft and marine ELTs. These use an international frequency that is located by satellites and search planes (the old 122.5 MHz is being deprecated and will be discontinued in the near future in favor of 406 MHz). Some units (such as those by ACR) have a GPS receiver and can provide accurate coordinates. Mostly these are simply SOS/911 calls for help through international SAR services, such as the US Coast Guard.

2. SPOT - SPOT uses the Globalstar satphone system to relay messages to your "teams" or emergency 911/SOS messages via a private SAR coordination service, GEOS. The older SPOT 1 had some serious limitations (due to the early GPS chipset). SPOT2 (SPOT Messenger) and the SPOT Communicator allow for a set of canned messages to your "team" (friends and family) to reassure them or request a low level of help ("running out of beer, bring a case" or, more seriously "running late, but all ok"). You can also have a "help" team to which you send canned messages like "Help needed at this location" (all SPOT messages give the GPS coordinates). SPOT 2 only does canned help messages, but the Communicator in conjunction with the Delorme PN-60 can relay free-form messages as texting to your team's cell phones or email. The emergency 911/SOS message alerts GEOS, which checks with your designated contacts and will coordinate a local SAR team closest to your location. Two major improvements with SPOT 2 and the SPOT Communicator are the GPS chipset is far better, plus Globalstar has been enlarging its coverage area (it is still limited to the area between 80 north latitude and 80 south latitude, mostly on the continents). The link with the PN-60 provides a much more sensitive GPS receiver, plus for the Communicator a means for generating the free-form messages (basically Tweets - which can be used as well as cell phone text and email, for up to 100 people).

3. Satellite phone - there are two services for satellite phone at present - Iridium which provides coverage for the entire Earth, and Globalstar, which covers most of the continents and some ocean areas, though not the polar regions above 80 deg N and S. Globalstar is adding satellites, which reduces the dropout problem they had when I did the early SPOT evaluation. I was able to get messages through dependably from Easter Island and Chile in July, for example. The big drawbacks are both expense-related - the phones are expensive and calls are expensive (several dollars a minute, depending on the service plan). Plus the phones are pretty large and clumsy.

4. cell phone - although coverage is improving, many backcountry areas do not have cell coverage. Many current cell phones have a GPS chipset in them (for e911 service and the mapping services, which are mostly to direct you to the nearest fast food joint and nearest fashion shop).

5. ham radio - the smallest handhelds are on the VHF and UHF frequencies and depend on repeaters or line of sight. But small 6 m handhelds are available (my Yaesu VX7 and Barb's VX5 have 6 m), which can hit some repeaters that are not line of sight. You do have to have a license, but this is very easy to get (Morse code is no longer required for the lower license class).

6. FRS/GMRS radio - these are strictly line of sight. Some ads claim "25 miles range". That only applies if you are on a mountain top and have a clear line of sight.

9:03 p.m. on November 8, 2010 (EST)
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that's a lot of info, and a lot of tech stuff to try to swallow.

 

In short, with your vast experience and knowledge, would you recommend the Spot 2 for a basic PLB that can alert emergency services if necessary and send an "all ok" message to loved ones?

 

 

10:16 p.m. on November 8, 2010 (EST)
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One thing to consider is that the SPOT requires a monthly subscription fee, while the unit itself is cheaper. But the more expensive actual PLBs cost a little more up front but don't require a subscription.

10:21 p.m. on November 8, 2010 (EST)
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Forgot to add that a PLB has a sealed battery and is only used when you truly need help. While if your constantly sending ok signals with your SPOT when a time comes that you really need to send out a help signal you are using a weaker battery. I would rather have a fully charged battery ready to be used for my true emergency vice hoping it has enough juice to get out a good signal.

12:28 a.m. on November 9, 2010 (EST)
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Before you shell out the ducats, you may want to determine if he is even willing to use this gadget.  I would re-gift if someone gave me one.

Ed

8:33 p.m. on November 9, 2010 (EST)
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5. ham radio - the smallest handhelds are on the VHF and UHF frequencies and depend on repeaters or line of sight. But small 6 m handhelds are available (my Yaesu VX7 and Barb's VX5 have 6 m), which can hit some repeaters that are not line of sight. You do have to have a license, but this is very easy to get (Morse code is no longer required for the lower license class).

Morse code is no longer required for ANY license class.  Also, most radios (2 meter/440, etc) can hit repeaters that are not line of sight.  I can call up at least 10 from my home, none of which are line of sight.  Several are more than 30 miles away.

de W9JIM

10:59 a.m. on November 10, 2010 (EST)
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Whomeworry's comment about your father-in-law not possibly not wanting to use it got me thinking.  I carry it when I'm solo hiking in places without people (i.e. off season, very remote, off trail, etc.)  Is this the type of solo hiking he does?  If so, then it makes sense.

If he's solo hiking on trails with people coming and going then the need for something like this is diminished.  He may be a lightweight backpacker and not want to add this weight to his pack.  Asking him probably makes sense.

Here's another thing to consider if you discuss it with him:

I've also carried my plb with me when not hiking solo.  It was a very remote hike, cross country, and my friend had some prior health problems.  I carried it at the request of his wife.  I figured that if he (or I) got hurt or sick the plb would allow the healthy one to stay with and care for the other until help came.  Otherwise the healthy one would have to walk and drive out to get help, leaving the injured or sick one without help.  Plus the plb calls for help right away instead of being delayed until the healthy one walked and drove for help.  It could have taken 6 to 8 hours to walk and drive to help from where we were and nightfall could further complicate the trip out or arrival of help. 

11:14 a.m. on November 10, 2010 (EST)
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Morse code is no longer required for ANY license class.  Also, most radios (2 meter/440, etc) can hit repeaters that are not line of sight.  I can call up at least 10 from my home, none of which are line of sight.  Several are more than 30 miles away.

de W9JIM

Somehow I missed the complete elimination of the telegraphy requirement. I am a bit disappointed at that, especially since Morse code was the original digital mode. I just read through the FCC's responses and decisions and understand their reasoning, though I do disagree with some of it. I will have to look a bit farther into this to see how it interacts with the ITU regulations and with other countries' rules. As it stands now, there are still a lot of restrictions on reciprocal operating privileges (we have taken our handhelds to several other countries, and found some easy to make the legal arrangements and some pretty tight).

But, it does make the technology more accessible to more people.

de NA5P

11:45 a.m. on November 10, 2010 (EST)
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In short, with your vast experience and knowledge, would you recommend the Spot 2 for a basic PLB that can alert emergency services if necessary and send an "all ok" message to loved ones?

SPOT is not a PLB. A Personal Locator Beacon operates in the 406 MHz band and uses the COSPAS-SARSAT system, which is an international system with their satellites providing access over the entire globe. The emergency response is provided by government agencies, such as the US Coast Guard and similar agencies of other governments.

SPOT is a private company, a subsidiary of Globalstar. It uses the digital service of the Globalstar satellite constellation. The emergency response system is through a separate private company GEOS that contacts SAR groups in the vicinity of the emergency signal.

SPOT charges an annual (not monthly), automatically renewed usage fee ($100/year for SPOT 1, SPOT 2, or the SPOT/Delorme combination), plus an optional "track following" service ($50/year), and, if you want the rescue insurance, GEOS charges an annual rescue insurance premium ($12.95).  If you want to use the "type and send" text messaging service on the Delorme/SPOT combination, you get 500 messages for $50 (or a couple of lesser options).

In the Delorme/SPOT combination, you get the Delorme PN-60 (or the "w" wireless or "SE" special edition extended memory) GPS receiver. As noted in the OR Show blogs by Alicia, this is a top-end GPS receiver comparable to Garmin's and Magellan's top-end GPSRs. The SPOT series do not display any of the GPS-derived information on the unit itself, so cannot be used for navigation, only for communications.

A PLB, such as the ACR or McMurdo units, is a fixed price with service "forever". Both ACR and McMurdo offer models that will send "OK" messages. But since they are sealed, there is a limit on the number of messages that can be sent, due to the requirement that a certain amount of battery life must remain (the battery cannot be changed by the user).

I know I did not answer iClimb's request for a specific recommendation. I cannot give a specific recommendation of "buy this", whether an emergency beacon or a jacket, sleeping bag, boots, packs, or other items, simply because everyone's preferences and desires, er, I mean, needs, differ. I might prefer that my GPSr be bright orange so I can find it if I drop it (I think the Delorme PN-60 only comes in black, which means if I drop it at night, I will never find it), but someone else might prefer a different color. I will note that most emergency locators are bright orange or yellow, to make them more readily visible and easy to find in an emergency situation.

So I have tried to give enough information that you can decide for yourself which, if any, unit (or any other communications means) meets your criteria. One of those criteria should be "Will I (or the person I am presenting with a gift) actually carry the unit and actually use it in a responsible manner?" If the answer is "no", "I am not sure", or even "maybe" or "I don't know", then I would say, save your money. If your answer is "definitely yes, I need it because ..." or "I (or my spouse/constant companion/mommy) will feel a lot more comfortable if I get it and carry it", then definitely go ahead and help stimulate the economy.

4:15 p.m. on November 10, 2010 (EST)
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thanks all. 

 

In response to the questions about what my father-in-law's use of it may be: yes he is a solo hiker in off season back country low traveled areas. He has climbed Mt Washington solo in the winter over 30 times, and he usually never sees another soul the entire time.

 

Bill - I guess my requests for recommendations weren't so much about the information...I've done a fair amount of research as to what the units claim to do.

 

My questions on here were: do they actually do what they claim to do.

 

So my last question is, from anyone's experience with these devices, which ones work, and which ones seem to be wastes of money and useless in terms of an emergency?

4:58 p.m. on November 10, 2010 (EST)
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I'm a solo hiker and have carried the Spot 1 for a year now.  Bought it used on eBay. 

Under a heavy canopy or inside a deep canyon don't expect too much.   Until it has a clear view of the satellites, it won't transmit.  But for about 95% of my hikes it has performed as it should.  My wife and daughter enjoy keeping up with me at home.  It has come in handy in a number of places where cell reception is non existent.

randy

1:31 p.m. on November 11, 2010 (EST)
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I've used the ACR plb for about 5 years.  Never used it for real but there is a test mode.  It worked each time I tested it.

The test consists of pressing a couple of buttons.  Lights tell you that the message went to the satellite and back to you.  Very reassuring. 

We were near an approaching forest fire once and broke camp in the middle of the night to get away from it.  I was pretty sure we could avoid the fire but was concerned that we may be trapped by it and not able to get out.  Having the plb with me was very reassuring.

My current unit weighs 12 ounces.  I'm looking forward to the lighter McMurdo model.

2:20 p.m. on November 16, 2010 (EST)
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The McMurdo Fastfind is on sale for $229 here:

http://www.solutiononemaritime.com/product_info.php?products_id=81

That's pretty cheap when you consider that a replacement battery for my ACR Terrafix 406 is $150.

6:30 p.m. on November 16, 2010 (EST)
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....The test consists of pressing a couple of buttons.  Lights tell you that the message went to the satellite and back to you.  ...

According to the manual and the discussions I have had with the ACR reps, the tests are self-tests. There is no confirmation on the unit itself in testing or in sending an emergency signal that the satellite system has received the signal or that COSPAS-SARSAT has received the signal. The series of 6 tests only check the operation of the unit itself, not the interaction with the rest of the system, with the indication being pass/fail. There is a confirmation in the display of certain models that the unit is receiving the GPS signals at a satisfactory level. Your confirmation that your request for help got through is when the SAR team arrives.

The GPS satellites themselves do not receive signals from PLBs or EPIRBs, though they do receive and forward signals from "authorized users" (this means the military, not civilians) and the control and telemetry communications from the GPS Ground Segment. (I worked as a Systems Designer for the GPS for about 10 years).

ACR is introducing some units that allow a small number of "OK" messages to be sent (the limit is fairly small to insure meeting the battery reserve requirement). The unit itself does not confirm if the "OK" has been received by the message-relay satellite or if it has been forwarded.

12:37 a.m. on November 17, 2010 (EST)
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Bill,

Thanks for the clarification.  Looks like I went beyond the data in assuming the test sent and received a confirmation from the satellite.

Here's the line out of the manual that led me to assume this:

""During a self test your PLB will send a 406 MHz signal coded as a self-test to the satellite system."

So, if I understand you correctly, the self test confirms that my device sent a signal but does not confirm that the signal was received.  Right?

Another Question

You said "The GPS satellites themselves do not receive signals from PLBs".

Where then, in a real use of the PLB, would the signal from my unit be received?

Thanks for any additional info you can provide. 

6:50 p.m. on November 17, 2010 (EST)
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....So, if I understand you correctly, the self test confirms that my device sent a signal but does not confirm that the signal was received.  Right?

That is correct. It is strictly a self-test.

Another Question

You said "The GPS satellites themselves do not receive signals from PLBs".

Where then, in a real use of the PLB, would the signal from my unit be received?

The signals from PLBs, EPIRBs, and ELTs are received by the COSPAS-SARSAT satellites (2 COSPAS satellites - Russian and 2 SARSAT satellites - US, part of the NOAA system in the LEOSAR system in Low Earth Orbit,  plus the US GOES, Indian INSAT, and European Union EUMETSAT meteorological satellites in geosynchronous orbits). The signals transmitted are on 406MHz (though some older units transmit on 121.5 MHz or on both frequencies - the 121.5 is being phased out). (disclosure - my son is one of the scientists involved in the development of the next generation of GOES satellites). Any emergency messages are relayed to the COSPAS-SARSAT message control centers and on to the SAR organizations (such as the US Coast Guard). There is no transmission back to the PLB/EPIRB/ELT.

SPOT, which is not a PLB in the official definition, transmits its signals to the GlobalStar satellite phone system satellites. These signals are relayed to a private organization GEOS, which validates the messages, then relays the information to more local SAR groups (such as the local sheriff's office). Again, there is no transmission back to the SPOT device.

Both SPOT and current PLB and EPIRB devices have GPS chipsets to receive and process GPS signals. Older PLBs and EPIRBs and all ELTs lack GPS capability, with the COSPAS-SARSAT locating method for signals without a GPS location being the same as we were taught years ago in Civil Air Patrol - fly on a straight line until the signal starts fading, then folks on the ground note all the max signal points and draw lines on their maps orthogonal to the flight paths of all the search aircraft (satellites in the case of COSPAS-SARSAT) to find the best intersection area - takes a while and the location is usually a hundred square miles or more.  Crude, but it works. The current SPOT, PLB, and EPIRB units providing GPS-based coordinates helps a lot with shrinking the search areas.

By the way, a PLB or an EPIRB must be registered to the governmental jurisdiction where it is to be used. If you travel to another country, you must notify that jurisdiction. If an unregistered signal is received, the SAR group having jurisdiction over the area may or may not respond.

 

 

7:06 p.m. on November 17, 2010 (EST)
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I recommend you also read Bill's article NASA Develops New Emergency Response System which gets into some of the different satellite systems out there.

12:36 a.m. on November 18, 2010 (EST)
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Bill,

Thanks for the additional info/clarification.  Very helpful

dj2

12:19 a.m. on November 23, 2010 (EST)
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If you get lost its always good to Carry a GPS    so you can Navigate your way out of the woods.

1:16 p.m. on November 29, 2010 (EST)
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Gander Mountain sells the McMurdo Fastfind 210 for $249.99. For cyber Monday they have a $50 off orders of $250 or more and free shipping, but you have to add something to the order to get over $250. The least expensive thing I could find to ad was a Johnson Original Beetle Spin®, 1/16 oz. for $1.49.

The Fast Find 210 is the one that broadcasts the gps signal as well as the 406 mhz and 125 mhz signals. However, it is otherwise a no-frills PLB. It has a battery test, but not a signal test, so you CANNOT use it with test and "ok" services like 406link.com

But if all you want is a PLB in case you get into a life threatening situation, this is a good compact unit.

1:34 p.m. on November 29, 2010 (EST)
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The Fast Find 210 is the one that broadcasts the gps signal ...

Minor correction to your useful post - the Fast Find receives the signals from the GPS satellites. It does not transmit them.

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