Intermittent emergency beacon owned by Fraser backcountry skier frustrates rescuers for two months
March 4, 2010
A “Personal Locater Beacon” (PLB) designed for emergency notification for wilderness and remote-area travelers had sheriff and search and rescue teams scrambling for the past two months, during which the device was inadvertently triggered nine times in backcountry areas ranging from Berthoud Pass to Crested Butte.
The device doesn’t indicate what the emergency is, so emergency responders must assume it is a lifethreatening emergency and each time search and rescue resources were immediately called to respond to the signal.
The owner of the beacon, an ACR Electronics PLB-300 MicrOFix, was a resident of Fraser and is an active backcountry enthusiast who frequently skis the Berthoud Pass area. Last year he received the PLB as a birthday present from an out-of-state relative who knew he skied a lot. The message from his relative was that this was an avalanche beacon and that they wanted him to be safe.
Having not read the information in the box or on the back of the device, he would turn-on the beacon every time he began to take a run in the backcountry. After returning to the road he would then turn it off.
He had no idea that every time he turned it on it he was broadcasting a distress signal to international satellites that send the signal to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. And the PLB was never on long enough to pinpoint its exact location. Had the owner registered his PLB as required, authorities would have known his name, address and contact information the first time the distress signal was broadcast. PLBs are an outstanding emergency beacon and save lives when used correctly. They do not work like an avalanche beacon, which only works in conjunction with another avalanche beacon to find someone buried under snow and has a short range.
On Feb. 11, several law enforcement agencies and three search and rescue teams tracked the PLB from Berthoud Pass to Winter Park and then into Boulder. Members of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group were able to use “Direction Finding” equipment to locate the PLB, and its owner, in the City of Boulder.
But long before that, the owner first triggered the emergency beacon on Dec. 14, 2009 near Berthoud Pass. The PLB was repeatedly set off in December and January, resulting in rescuers and sheriff departments to initiate a search for the errant signal.
On Feb. 11 an emergency signal was again received from the same unit and the Clear Creek County Sheriff was notified. What was different this time was that the PLB continued to send data bursts to the passing satellites. The owner had forgotten to turn it off and left it in his car. Finally the PLB could be tracked and it was found in the car at a medical building parking lot in Boulder, where the owner was at a doctor’s appointment.
The Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office began an investigation once the PLB was found. Investigators met with the owner and determined he was not aware of the consequences of turning on the beacon each time he was skiing. No charges will be filed and the PLB device has been returned to its owner. A sheriff’s officer watched the PLB owner register this PLB.