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October 2006

The Big Question: Rescue Tools

If you need to be rescued, is a satellite phone a better choice than a personal locator beacon?

NO You might never have heard of Aron Ralston if he had carried a PLB, a device unavailable in the United States at the time of his accident. That’s because he would likely have been rescued within hours of getting his arm jammed.

When activated, a PLB sends a distress call and location data via two separate satellite systems to the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center in Langley, VA. From there, your exact location goes to local rescuers. If you registered your PLB, they can quickly access your emergency contact and trip info. The result: Rescuers can be on their way long before you’d be reported missing or a partner can hike out for help.

PLBs are lighter and less fragile than satellite phones. They’re waterproof, the batteries last 5 to 10 years, and you don’t have to identify your exact location to rescuers. Most importantly, PLBs are more reliable, because they put out a much stronger signal that can punch through dense forest canopy or bounce off canyon walls. Plus, a PLB only needs to "see" a satellite for about 50 seconds to put out an SOS, whereas a sat phone needs to maintain contact throughout a call.

Cost is the main deterrent. PLB units currently go for $500 and up, or you can rent one for $49 a week (plbrentals.com).

The bottom line: A sat phone may save your life; a PLB will save your life.

Doug Ritter is editor of Equipped To Survive and executive director of the nonprofit Equipped To Survive Foundation (equipped.org).

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