The Laramee Filter: pseudorandom thoughts, subsequently put on the Internet.
Tom Laramee
Date Published:
August 21st, 2023
Word Count:
1,737 (12:30 read time)
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The Anatomy of A Rescue Beacon

For those you who carry a rescue beacon when you hike, I think it's worth understanding how they work, and what to expect, should you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to deploy one.

As it turns out, there are things you can do to increase the chances of being found, and things you can do to significantly lower those chances. Understanding what happens once you deploy your beacon will help you make wise, strategic decisions.

Here's a photo of the one I used to carry, a PLB1 from OceanSignal:

I bought it, registered it with NOAA, and started carrying it on all hikes immediately. The most important part of the registration is the phone number to call when the beacon is deployed[1], as is the emergency contact.

The Most Common Scenarios In Which You May Need To Deploy Your Beacon

Here are the three main scenarios in which hikers and climbers generally deploy a rescue beacon[2]:

  1. You're hopelessly lost (and likely in danger)
  2. You're stuck (...)
  3. You're injured and are no longer ambulatory (...)

Being hopelessly lost implies being in danger, as you'll eventually run out of water, nightfall will come (and it will get cold, so hypothermia is a concern if you're at elevation), and you could wander into dangerous terrain. A common scenario is to come down "the wrong side" of say, a glacier, or a mountain, and so not only are you off-trail, you have a huge impediment between where you are and getting back on-trail.

A common scenario for being stuck is to be "cliffed out", which means you're in a position where you can no longer proceed up or down (this one is way more common than people might think). This usually occurs in steep, rocky mountain terrain and can be surprisingly easy to do if the mountainside is so steep you can't see very far in front of you.

The most common injuries are from falling and usually involve a broken leg, ankle, or collarbone. I was told that these are the most common form of rescue (and usually involve extraction via a helicopter).

Deploying the Beacon

Should you find yourself in one of these situations, deploying a beacon is straightforward. Each beacon has it's own specific instructions on how to start it transmitting[3]. The one I used had six steps:

  1. Pull the antenna out from the body
  2. Lift the flap up
  3. Press the ON key for one second (the green LED will flash)
  4. Release the ON key
  5. Ensure the antenna is held vertically (the strobe light will start flashing)
  6. Make sure it has a clear view of the sky

That part is pretty straightforward, it's what happens next that's not understood.

Now the Wait Begins

It's my understanding that all rescue beacons sold in the United States will transmit their rescue signal to one of two air force bases via the PLBs program:

  1. Florida
  2. Texas

The Air Force was supposed to be a temporary intermediary between NOAA and the state agencies responsible for missing/distress persons within each state, before they move to an automated system, but it's 2023 now (20 years later) and that doesn't seem to have happened:

During the transition to the automated system the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center will notify the responsible state agency via voice/fax[4] to begin SAR response per our established legal state SAR agreements and Memorandum of Understanding).
(The PLBs program began on July 1, 2003)

The first thing that happens once your beacon makes contact with a satellite is that you'll receive a phone call, from the Air Force, at the phone number that's registered with your beacon. If this happens to be a cell phone (as it likely will be), and you're out of cell phone range (which you likely are), you won't know you received a call at all.

(And yes, they'll leave a voicemail message)

When happens next is: nothing.

The Air Force doesn't do anything else for one hour. They just wait.

This was the part that was most surprising to me, and it helps if you can sort of put yourself into the mindset of someone who is (a) hopelessly lost (b) very injured or (c) both. You're sitting in middle of nowhere, in some cases able to move, in other cases unable to move, and you've deployed your rescue beacon. It's been more than an hour already, and there's no sign whatsoever that either the beacon is working, nor that anyone has received your distress call.

One of the hardest things to do when you're panicking or very injured (which you will be, panicking that is, if you've found it necessary to deploy a rescue beacon), is to wait.

After one hour passes, the Air Force will call your local sheriff. If you're in Snohomish County, this will be the Snohomish County Sheriff, located in Granite Falls (likely because it's the central geographic point of Snohomish County itself).

The sheriff will then call your local Search and Rescue and ask them to deploy.

In King County, that will be King County Search and Rescue. In Snohomish County, that will be SCVSAR (Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue) and if necessary Snohomish County HRT (Helicopter Rescue Team).

It's important to understand that these organizations are mainly staffed by volunteers[5], including the helicopter pilots. When the sheriff starts calling people to deploy, they might be asleep, at the grocery store, or stuck in traffic.

So you'll be waiting.

For a long time.

As a general guideline, a reasonable timeframe for SAR to get a helicopter in the air is one hour. Then you'll also need to consider it will take travel time for them to get to your location. Also consider that the beacon doesn't immediately make contact with the satellite system, nor does the Air Force immediately read the distress call.

It's critical to understand that you'll be waiting for a minimum of 2.5+ hours before there's any sign that your beacon is working and that people are responding. It's a long time to sit there and do nothing.

The Rescue Itself

Here are some critical things to consider about the rescue logistics, focused entirely on maximizing your chances of being rescued:

I learned that SCVSAR takes their job very, very seriously[7], and that they really want to rescue you, so if you can keep the faith that your rescue beacon has been heard, and the people responsible for extracting you are both very skilled, and highly motivated to do exactly that, you'll sit tight and listen for the most amazing sound you'll ever hear: the rotors of the SAR helicopter, coming to save you.

[1] Because if you register your cell phone you're likely to be out of service range in the event that you actually need to deploy your beacon. There's an emergency contact field also (who shouldn't ever be hiking with you), and this person should always know (a) where/when you're hiking and (b) what you're wearing when you're hiking.
[2] I had a long phone conversation with the Granite Falls sheriff in 2021 and we discussed this stuff in great detail. It was incredibly helpful and informative.
[3] And FFS RTFM before you hike and memorize the instructions. The thing will be useless if you don't understand how to deploy it.
[4] Sure! Send a fucking fax to someone when I'm hanging off of the side of a cliff. That's a really good idea. I'm sure someone will be right on it. /s
[5] If you care about this subject enough to read this, and you hike in WA State, you're nearly ethically obligated to make a donation to one or more of these organizations. These teams are amazing and save many lives each year. Theoretically, one of those could be yours.
[6] The cost depends a lot on the number of seats. From the HRT videos I watched, there's a pilot + three passengers + the rescued person, so at a minimum it's a 4-seat helicopter, but they also store a lot of rescue gear, so it's bigger than that (approx 12 people if it was only transporting people).
According to the Snohomish County HRT website, it costs $1,200/hour to operate their SnoHawk10 helicopter (which is a modified Bell UH-1H helicopter).
[7] Here are some cool rescue videos, just to give you a sense of how these scenarios play out: