As an avid wilderness explorer, I’m often out in the middle of nowhere with no phone reception and miles from help. And that’s why I always carry a distress beacon; aka. Personal Locator Beacon (PLB).

I often go exploring in remote areas where I know anything could happen – snake or spider bite, a fall, or I could get lost, or stranded in bad weather.

I’m always well prepared with warm clothing, water, snacks and my distress beacon – and I tell someone where I’m going and when I’m due back.

What is a distress beacon?

A distress beacon is a device that can alert emergency services if your life is in danger.

There are different types of distress beacons and the one you need will depend on where you go adventuring. Distress beacons are commonly referred to simply as EPIRBs. This isn’t exactly correct.

An EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) is a distress beacon that is typically used in a maritime setting. In most cases, boats going more than two nautical miles offshore are required to carry one of these.

A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a more compact, lighter version of an EPIRB – and they are perfect for hikers, or people on small recreational sea craft like kayaks which are staying close to shore.

The detection of a PLB works the same as an EPIRB – they are simply manufactured for different outdoor settings.

When should I activate my distress beacon?

If you find yourself in a sticky situation out in the wilderness, your first point of call should always be attempting to contact emergency services using 000 from your phone. This way you will be able to communicate your exact location and what the problem is.

If your life is in danger and you cannot reach emergency services by phone due to low battery or no reception, activate your beacon to assist search and rescue authorities in determining your whereabouts.

Once you activate your beacon, it’s important you do not move from that location.

How is a distress beacon detected?

When a distress beacon is activated, the international search and rescue satellite system, Cospas-Sarsat detects the distress signal and transmits to the nearest ground station. The signal is then relayed to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Canberra. The JRCC is run by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), which receives all beacon signals on land, at sea or in the air within the Australian search and rescue region.

The JRCC receives a distress alert within minutes of a beacon being activated, provided it has been deployed correctly. The aerial should be vertical and where possible your beacon should be deployed in a clear open area to have the best chance of being detected by satellites overhead.

Your beacon should be registered with AMSA and renewed every 2 years so your personal details and emergency contact information are on file in case of an emergency.

On receiving the signal, the JRCC will phone your emergency contacts. Your emergency contacts will be asked if they can provide any information on your whereabouts, your provisions and any medical conditions, while your position is being determined.

With a GPS equipped beacon, your position will be pinpointed to within a 120 metre radius in less than 20 minutes, providing the beacon is deployed correctly.

It can take between 90 minutes and five hours to pinpoint your location to within a five-kilometre radius with a non-GPS beacon. This is because there must be a satellite pass overhead twice that successfully detects your beacon to determine your position. So the bottom line is, GPS is best.

AMSA coordinates search and rescue operations in cooperation with state and territory search and rescue agencies (police) who then task resources at their level. This can range from contracted search and rescue units, volunteer agencies and other emergency services agencies.

Search and rescue operation times are dependent on the circumstances, so it is important to be prepared for all circumstances ahead and do your best to stay alive until help arrives!

distress beacon amsa safety first aid

Photo courtesy of Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA)

Don’t forget to register your distress beacon

You can register your beacon for free on AMSA’s online beacon registration website www.amsa.gov.au/beacons or by phoning (02) 6279 5000. You can find out what information you need to register here.

Your emergency contacts should be the people you would usually tell where you’re going such as family members, partners or friends. You can also upload trip details to your registration account. It’s really important to keep your information up to date.

It’s also a good idea to periodically test your beacon to ensure it’s working correctly. Every beacon has a self-test switch. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Also keep in mind that your beacon batteries will eventually expire. Batteries last between five and 10 years depending on the beacon. The expiry date is printed on your beacon. You have the option of buying a new beacon, or contacting the beacon manufacturer for battery replacement/servicing.

You can buy PLBs at good outdoor shops. I’ve seen them at Mountain Designs and Paddy Pallin. They range in price but expect to pay around $400. Remember it’s an investment that could save your life.

More information on how distress beacons work can be found on the Distress Beacons website at www.amsa.gov.au/beacons.

distress beacon amsa safety first aid

Photo: Lisa Owen

What else should you be packing for your remote adventures?

If you’re planning to hike in a remote location, there’s some other essential gear you should bring in addition to a PLB. Remember, even if you need to activate your beacon, help could be a way off dependent on your location and weather conditions. Check out this Essential Gear List so you don’t forget anything important.

Stay safe out there our young padawans…

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