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Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT)

Your purchase of an ACR TerraFix Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) allows you to participate in the COSPAS-SARSAT global humanitarian Search And Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking system. Development of COSPAS-SARSAT started prior to 1982. NASA engineers had been working with a military system used to locate a beacon with the Doppler positioning capability of early satellites. While working on this project, they found that Canada was developing a similar system. In an effort to make the system truly global, the US and Canada invited Russia and France, the other space countries, to join in developing an international system. They joined forces and COSPAS-SARSAT became a reality in 1985. The first save came even before the system was fully operational. Over 18,000 lives have been saved worldwide (5,171 people in the US) since 1982.

It does not cost you anything to use the system. In the US, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the administrative organization and The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) operates the satellites. NOAA maintains the individual 406 MHz database and software that connects your signal to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC). One of the great benefits in North America was having the Air Force step forward to operate the Rescue Coordination Center. For the first time, every state has an Office of Emergency Management that receives your information and position from the AFRCC. This state office is in contact with every county, local and mountain rescue group, thereby allowing that state to use the best resources available for your rescue. The use of PLBs saves thousands of dollars and protects search and rescue (SAR) personnel by directing them precisely to your position, eliminating the long hours of searching that were previously necessary.

Your PLB alerts the AFRCC immediately upon activation of the PLB. It provides rescuers with your name and contact information. If you use the free website (www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov) to update your information, including a trip plan with dates, they will have that specific information about you in about 3 minutes. Your trip plan can also be used to provide specific medical information so if you are injured or in shock, the medical team will have been alerted to your other medical conditions. Since the alert is immediate, your rescue mobilization starts immediately, not hours or days later when a loved one has called and reported you overdue. There is no 24-hour wait as in a missing person’s case. The PLB alert and position is treated as a verified missing person and mobilization is immediate.

Furthermore, since SAR will have your ID and your position, they do not have to search 1000s of acres. Under the worst conditions, they have your position within 400-500 yards using the COSPAS-SARSAT Polar Orbiting LEOS Satellites. SAR will know which side of the mountain you are on, what valley you are in, what river you are on or what ocean you are on. Homing devices can bring them within yards of your beacon’s position. The models with an internal GPS will provide a position accurate to about 100 yards, often within minutes.

This Global Humanitarian system is made up of two satellite systems. The original COSPAS-SARSAT (LEOS) Polar Orbiting system has between 4 and 6 satellites that orbit the earth about every hour and a half at a distance of about 500 miles. They monitor a circle on the earth about 3,600 miles wide (11,300 square miles) as they travel overhead from pole to pole. When overhead they retransmit your emergency alert and position to the Rescue Coordination Center. These polar orbiting satellites provide excellent coverage near the poles. Near the equator it is often 46 minutes or more between satellites.

That is why starting in 1997 NASA and NOAA added 406 MHz signal detection software to the geostationary GOES weather satellites. These satellites are located around the world over the equator at a distance of about 22,000 miles. Their advantage is that they are overhead all the time. For instance, GOES 9 looks at the entire Pacific basin from Antarctica to the North Slope of Alaska and from Japan to the Gulf of Mexico. If you activate your PLB in the Pacific Basin, your alert will be passed on to the AFRCC immediately. This overlapping global coverage assures receiving your alert and ID information anywhere in the world within minutes. These satellites are also capable of receiving and forwarding your GPS coordinates as well. If you have filed a trip plan, search and rescue providers worldwide will have your specific information and your trip plan information within minutes through this global GEOSAR system.

Because of these two satellite systems, your alert will be picked up and your position relayed to search and rescue anywhere in the world, under the worst conditions you can imagine. The PLB will work in rain, sleet, snow, desert heat, forest canopy, rim rock canyons, whitewater rafts or kayaks or life rafts in the middle of the ocean. These beacons will even get your signal to the satellites if you fall into a crevasse or are trapped in a slot canyon. As long as you can see sky, they work. (They do not work in a cave or buried under snow or under water.)

So who can benefit from carrying a an ACR TerraFix PLB? Anyone who’s:

  • Mountain biking the ridge
  • Cruising the rail trails
  • Snow shoeing in the mountains
  • Cross country skiing in a park
  • Hiking for a day
  • On the trail for a month
  • Climbing a remote peak with an elite team
  • Just climbing the local hot spot for an afternoon
  • Kayaking the coastal trail
  • Exploring a remote wilderness lake
  • Rafting a wild river
  • Taking your own child or their entire grade school class on a hike
  • Doing research on the effects of global warning
  • Working out in your company’s tree farm
  • Looking for semiprecious gems or very precious wildflowers
  • If your work takes you to remote areas or you just go because you love it

Anyone doing any of these things, or any of the thousand other activities that take us into the outdoors should consider carrying a PLB. If someone is likely to report you missing or overdue, then search and rescue will risk themselves for your survival. The PLB provides immediate alerting and takes the “search” out of search and rescue. You should at least consider the value of a PLB in protecting those dedicated rescue personnel and in saving your own life.

AFRCC: Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, receives and then dispatches alerts and positions to state or to another countries’ Search and Rescue emergency coordination center.
COSPAS-SARSAT: COSPAS is Russian, SARSAT is search and rescue satellite aided tracking.
LEOS: Low Earth Orbiting Satellites, also called polar orbiting
GEOS: Geostationary Earth Orbiting Satellites makes up the GEOSAR system.
GEOSAR: Search and Rescue package aboard the GEOS series satellites
NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Operates US satellites
NOAA: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, administers COSPAS-SARSAT for the USA
PLB Personal Locator Beacon: A personal satellite distress beacon as authorized by the FCC Nationally and COSPAS-SARSAT Internationally.
SAR: Search and Rescue, made up of county, local or regional teams whose specialty and training is to find and assist lost or injured people. This group includes special rescue groups such as mountain rescue and white water rescue as well as Fire departments, medical responders and police departments. They are often manned by volunteers.

Charlie Bond
Safety Consultant
Ralston Cunningham Assoc.,Inc.