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The Case for PLBs

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The Case for PLBs

Postby EpicSteve » Thu Oct 02, 2014 2:31 am

I didn’t want to derail the “October Backpacking” thread, so I’m starting a new one for this separate but related issue…

I'm really getting sick of the constant holier-than-thou insistence that hikers who carry PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons) must be misguided newbies who make bad decisions. Supposedly these misguided hikers all think the “magic” buttons on their PLBs will get them out of any jam, so they take unnecessary risks that their limited hiking experience doesn’t support.

Yes, I’m sure it’s true that some people who carry PLBs are lured into a false sense of security. And yes, some of these greenhorns probably shouldn't be backpacking in the first place without receiving the tutelage of a good mentor for a while first. Indeed, I’ve read about documented cases where stupid hikers prompted their own rescue because their feet hurt and they were thirsty!

But suggesting that people shouldn't carry PLBs at all is like saying that wearing a seat belt and carrying road flares encourages dangerous driving! One simply has to have a realistic attitude about the reasons and limitations for carrying such devices.

I've been backpacking for 45 years. I’ve been skiing and snowshoeing on and off for 35 years. I was trained in SAR, Basic Mountaineering and Mountaineering First Aid at ages 14 and 15 respectively, etc., blah, blah, blah…

I started carrying a PLB several years ago, after the weight and price of these devices finally fit my tolerance level. My hiking style hasn't changed one iota since I started carrying my PLB. I've never used it and I don't intend to ever use it (just like my First Aid Kit… should I stop carrying THAT, too?) But no one ever intends to have an accident.

Even if you never hike solo, never leave the trail, and only hike in summer, there is always the possibility that some dumb little slip on a slick rock or loose talus could result in an awkward fall, causing a broken bone or an injury to an internal organ. Acute illnesses, such as appendicitis, are another risk whether you’re hiking or not. For victims of such circumstances (regardless of whether bad decisions did or did NOT lead to those circumstances), time is of the essence.

“Safety in numbers,” “years of experience,” “excellent equipment” and a history of “good decisions” are all factors that can lead to a false sense of security, just as easily as any PLB. If you’re four days from the nearest road or ranger station and you sustain a compound fracture or develop appendicitis, how will a group of partners or the best decision making skills help you? Answer: They probably won’t!

Bottom line: You need to get to a hospital, fast. No matter how burly or motivated your partners are, they probably won’t be able to get you there in time. And most of the wilderness doesn’t have a strong enough cell signal to help you. Your only real hope? PLB or Sat phone. Maybe if you’re incredibly lucky, you might blow on a rescue whistle and just happen to alert a passing ranger who has a radio (yes, I carry a whistle on a lanyard too – it doesn’t weigh much!)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a fan of carrying electronic gadgets in the backcountry. First of all, we all know they can fail (but then again, so can anything). Secondly, part of my reason for going into the wilderness is to escape the trappings of human society. Even on winter backpacking trips, I’ve never carried an iPod, E-reader or even a good ol’ fashioned book for entertainment.

BUT… why should I sentence myself to death for an unpredictable (but relatively common and totally treatable) condition when a device exists that may very well enable someone else to save my life when I can’t do it for myself?

Are you inclined to take stupid risks at home because the 9-1-1 system exists as a safety net? If a few stupid people are indeed so inclined, should we respond by doing away with the 9-1-1 system altogether? Or start implying that everyone who still wants to have 9-1-1 available is some combination of inexperienced, misguided and wussy? That’s absurd!

Like any other tool (i.e. knife; lighter; stove; bear pepper spray in grizzly country), a PLB can be misused and abused. But just like any other tool, the answer is to properly educate people in its use – not abolish the tool or ridicule people who use it properly.
:soapbox:
“I don’t deny that there can be an element of escapism in mountaineering, but this should never overshadow its real essence, which is not escape but victory over your own human frailty.”

- Walter Bonatti



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Re: The Case for PLBs

Postby chulavista » Thu Oct 02, 2014 4:24 am

As a long time lurker, I've never had the impression that people are ridiculing hikers who carry PLBs. I do think that some of the deaths that have occurred in the High Sierra have caused some of the members to come across consistently as "overprotective parents." Who am I to say whether it is warranted or not, but I think you should recognize that any perceived condescension is caused by other members' concern for the well-being of other hikers.

Everyone has different risk perceptions, risk tolerances, and opinions. I wouldn't get too worked up over the issue.
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Re: The Case for PLBs

Postby oldranger » Thu Oct 02, 2014 7:28 am

Epicsteve,

You are floating a red herring here. I can't remember anyone ridiculing anyone else for carrying a plb. Only for abuse by unnecessarily using one or for the sense that they can do things that they would not otherwise do without one. All your points are well taken but have been discussed multiple times on HST over the years.

Suggestion to admin/moderators. It might be a good idea to consolidate all discussions of PLBs, Spot Locators, sat phones etc as a sticky topic at the top of the outdoor gear forum so that newbies and people with short memories can have easy access to this important discussion.

Mike
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Re: The Case for PLBs

Postby AlmostThere » Thu Oct 02, 2014 7:50 am

There are PLBs, SPOT, InReach and other devices these days - not everything is a PLB.

A PLB is the last resort button. You only push it when you can't possibly walk yourself or your buddy out. It says "we need rescue now."

A two way device is advertised or talked up to backpackers who have spousal units that worry as the best thing since sliced bread. Many times older guys will tell me they got it at the insistence of their wife. The two way bit is inconsistent, delays due to lack of connectivity or a forgotten device worry the folks at home, and then there are the folks who don't bother to actually understand 1) the operation of the device itself or 2) when to actually use the 911 button. Unlike a PLB, I see plenty of advertising and sales people are happy to push a SPOT on you. Also you can rent them.

So while I'm sure there are, once in a while, PLB activations that are frivolous, there are far more accidental or misunderstood or frivolous 911 calls on the SPOT.

* the case of the PCT thru who, cold and wet under her small tarp in a snow/rain storm, triggered the 911 on her spot. In the morning she figured out she was okay and turned off the device. The search was called off after she showed up in a store for a resupply, not knowing that the 911 does not cancel if you turn off the device.

* the case of the group hiking in the desert canyons of New Mexico. First 911 from their SPOT they could not find water. They were given water and told the rescuers they did not need evacuation. Second 911 call they found water but "did not like the look of it." They were given more water. The third call, rescuers loaded them up and took them out regardless of what they wanted.

* the case of the two hikers wandering in the smoke along the Mono divide. They hit 911 when thick smoke from fires reduced their vision to feet. Neither of them had asthma or any other condition that made the smoke dangerous to them. Searchers called off the mission when other hikers informed them the two were hiking north and fine.

* the case of the lost SPOT. A frantic woman posts in a backpacking forum (not this one) that her father's text messages are odd, not sounding like him, and that he didn't check in and the map showed him sitting still for a day. Then it showed him backtracking (he was on the High Sierra Trail in the first two days of his trek). What should she do? The following day she posted that he had started texting again - apparently he left the device behind, someone else had picked it up and started texting thinking they could contact their own family (!) and then father backtracked and got the SPOT from him.

All SPOT devices. The SPOT is a perfect storm - sold to everyone and anyone regardless of whether they understand what it is really for or how it really works.

The PLB I have is cheaper, has a stronger signal, and doesn't require a subscription. I won't concern anyone by forgetting or missing a check in, because it doesn't do that. I like that if one of my party has to activate it on my behalf there is no ambiguity about what to do whatsoever - a test button, and the activation button, with clear instructions which is which. I tell all my hiker companions where to find it in my pack and what to do if it's needed. And when it is NEEDED.

If you read the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness planner (a pdf available on their site) it clearly states the following:

If you choose to carry a hand held electronic signaling device, be familiar with its operation, limitations and frequency of failure to transmit. Do not rely on it to summon rescue personnel or notify family you are "OK". Read the instructions for your device; keep them with you. Understand how it works and what services provided by the manufacturer must be activated and purchased. If required, register your device and provide all the information requested.

It goes on in considerably more detail than their previous wilderness planners have in the past about when to call for help, what to know about the device, and includes the sentence "Your knowledge, experience, and equipment will contribute most to your survival." I can give you a really good guess as to WHY they go into such excruciating detail - people don't read, don't learn and don't care, and repeatedly go out there and trigger frivolous searches. They just go in whatever state of being with their inadequate gear/ignorance and assume nothing will happen because they have the Magic Device. Trying to run a hiking group safely for the past 8 years taught me this well - I had complaints about "the trail is dirty" and "nobody told me [something obvious to anyone who visits the wilderness]" on a regular basis despite the fact that such information is usually built into the description of the events I posted on the calendar. In the case of the hiking group, I am the Magic Device. Same attitude as people with SPOT devices - I'm fine, because someone will take care of me. I had to start requiring phone calls so I could say to them "DID YOU READ ABOUT THE NATURE OF THIS TRIP? DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW STRENUOUS IT IS AND WHAT YOU NEED TO TAKE?" Some of them failed to read the very first line stating it was an overnight backpacking trip! Many drop off after I have talked to them.

From the perspective of the SAR personnel and park personnel - this is a serious matter because it wastes time and resources that could be spent on REAL searches for REAL crises - lost and hurt hikers, people who become unexpectedly ill or injured to the point of being unable to self rescue. It's your taxpayer dollars being spent. Potentially, someone who is in real trouble may die while SAR is diverting resources to someone else who pushed the wrong button or panicked prematurely when their level of experience (very little) collided with a non emergent situation (a little smoke, a little cold and wet, a muddy water source).

So how to educate hard headed, ignorant people who will not listen to you no matter what you say? If you find the answer let me know. I could use that tip to further educate the knotheads who show up on my group hikes, race ahead of the group, take the wrong trail or wander without adequate communication with us, and then waste a bunch of our time when we're trying to figure out where the HECK he went and whether we should call for help. In my experience, hard headed people only change their tune when they learn through harder experience that they are ignorant and need to change their ways. People who go to forums, ask questions, read backpacking books, and LEARN are not the problem. People who ignore all appeals from everyone are. Learning how to use a device is work. They don't care to do that. "It's easy to use, no problem." "I'll be fine doing this six day cross country trip - I have a SPOT." Denial is not just a river in Egypt...
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Re: The Case for PLBs

Postby balzaccom » Thu Oct 02, 2014 8:32 am

Nice points, AT.

I think the concern about PLBs and SPOTS is a bit misguided. The real issue is not the technology, but the people who use it. I am sure that SAR gets called far more often for dayhikers than for backpackers, and for people who mis-use their cell-phone more than those who mis-use a SPOT or PLB.

And while the list of adventures above is sad, there is a much larger list of "rescues" of people who are within two miles of a trailhead and DIDN'T use SPOT or PLB.

We don't carry one when we backpack. But there are two of us. And we are reaching the age where it is possible that one of us might have some kind of unexpected medical emergency---not slipping on a rock or getting lost, but heart attack or stroke. And that has got us thinking about carrying something we could use in that situation.

In thousands of hiking miles, we've never asked for help in the backcountry or on a day hike. And at this point we are assuming that we will either not get in serious trouble, or one of us will go for help and leave the other with food, water, a warm bag, and hope for rescue in a day or two. That would work for many moderate emergencies...

But it isn't a very good plan for a heart attach, stroke, or compound fracture...
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Re: The Case for PLBs

Postby longri » Thu Oct 02, 2014 9:23 am

I think they're a valuable tool when used responsibly. I just don't want to see them become mandatory.
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Re: The Case for PLBs

Postby Wandering Daisy » Thu Oct 02, 2014 10:02 am

PBL's reduce risk but there still is a chance that in an emergency, you will die before help comes. The example of four days (particularly if located in a difficult off-trail place) in with acute illness is a case if the weather turns foul. I was involved in an emergency (not life threatening) where we got out to authorities within 4 hours but wind were too high for a helicopter to land and land access was too difficult to carry out on a litter or use a horse. The rescue finally happened two full days later. The result was a lost finger and a serious bone infection after being released from the hospital - not life threatening but serious consequences due to time delay. Do not delude yourself. Pushing the help button does not guarantee immediate rescue.

The way to view a PBL is to act like it is not there. You need to be JUST as careful as you would be without one. However, I think it is simply human nature to subconsciously take a bit more risk if you know you have a PBL. If however you are the anxious type and a PBL makes you significantly less anxious, you may actually be more relaxed and hence safer.

As for spouses who need to constantly know where you are. Well, I was raised when nobody had instant continuous communication. Also as a mountaineer and alpine rock climber, we just assumed that if you got seriously hurt you would die. You and your family simply accepted that reality. When I go out solo for a week or more, I leave a detailed travel plan, with a map, and a specific "call the authority" time. In the mean time, my husband trusts me enough to minimally worry. Same when he goes on a trip without me. I never have felt the need to know where he is all the time. To each his own, but we do not feel any need for that capability in a PBL.

I am neither for or against PBL's. I lean to viewing them as "good" technology. But I personally do not use one, at this time. I can foresee that if I become a bit addled in my old age, I may start carrying one! I also do not use a GPS. That said, I have had over 40 years of experience without these devices. I certainly can see where the younger folks, raised with electronic gadgets would like to use them.
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Re: The Case for PLBs

Postby rlown » Thu Oct 02, 2014 10:09 am

Wandering Daisy wrote:As for spouses who need to constantly know where you are. Well, I was raised when nobody had instant continuous communication. Also as a mountaineer and alpine rock climber, we just assumed that if you got seriously hurt you would die. You and your family simply accepted that reality. When I go out solo for a week or more, I leave a detailed travel plan, with a map, and a specific "call the authority" time. In the mean time, my husband trusts me enough to minimally worry. Same when he goes on a trip without me. I never have felt the need to know where he is all the time. To each his own, but we do not feel any need for that capability in a PBL.


Totally agree with that statement! except for the PBL references (PLB) :)
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Re: The Case for PLBs

Postby balzaccom » Thu Oct 02, 2014 2:02 pm

Wandering Daisy wrote:
I am neither for or against PBL's. I lean to viewing them as "good" technology. But I personally do not use one, at this time. I can foresee that if I become a bit addled in my old age, I may start carrying one! ....


But if you are that addled, will you remember how to use it and know what it means? grin
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Re: The Case for PLBs

Postby maverick » Thu Oct 02, 2014 2:04 pm

Having to be connected, all the time, is the "in thing" with today's generation, whether
by phone, e-mail, or text, so this sort of thinking will be around for some time.

As WD mentioned, before Spot or SatPhone's, folks going into the backcountry had to
except, and understand, the dangerous of having to survive till the expected exit date,
at which time the person at home would call the authorities, and they would initiate
the SAR.
Having survival electronics is a good thing, as long its user uses it responsibly, not as a
crutch, substitution for common sense, understands these devices limitations, and that
there are folks putting their lives at risk to find them.

I just don't want to see them become mandatory.


They will never become mandatory because it is not fail safe system, even if it was
it still would not happen. Remember for example when SPOT's system was down for
3 days, it would open up the NPS/NFS to liability suits, which they will never do.


But it isn't a very good plan for a heart attach, stroke, or compound fracture...


If you have major medical emergency, heart attack, stroke, or fall which produces
massive internal bleeding, sorry to be blunt, but your chance of getting out alive
are slim to none.
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Re: The Case for PLBs

Postby overheadx2 » Thu Oct 02, 2014 11:42 pm

This seems like one of the strangest post I have read recently. It seems almost ludicrous that Backpackers wouldnt carry an emergency beacon. The reasoning for not having one seems almost shocking.
Because it's electronic in an electronic age? I have one and never look at it or play with it. It stays in my emergency medical bag for emergencies.
Because your dead even if help comes? Not if its a minor stroke or heart attack, not if you can get the fracture or emergency can be momentarily stabilized. Most medical emergencies don't die within hours but most probably would if you or your party needed to hike even 10 miles to a trail head.
Because I want to be like the old guys and die like a man if things go sideways? I'd rather live like a modern man.
Because SAR has to look for dumb ashes that use them poorly? How about the hours SAR spends looking for folks that didn't have them? I garranted more hours are spent scouring the sierras for people without emergency beacons than those with them. More importantly, the new models can text and let help know what the emergency is and how desperate it is.

I couldn't imagine being at miter basin or any other spot easily accessed by helicopter with an emergency with help is literally 1 hour away and not being able to contact them. I hate to think how many of the recent deaths in the sierras could have been averted by a simple push of a button or a text.
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Re: The Case for PLBs

Postby longri » Fri Oct 03, 2014 2:51 am

overheadx2 wrote:It seems almost ludicrous that Backpackers wouldnt carry an emergency beacon.

Maybe you're right.

Or maybe you're missing the point.

In any case, please don't take away my right to be an idiot in your eyes. I have my reasons for not carrying one whether you understand them or not.
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