'Search' in Search and Rescue
By Doug Fraser
Published: September 2, 2003
Lobsterman Anthony Coccoro was two miles offshore when he fell overboard
Dec. 5, 1997, but he might as well have been in the middle of the
He had slipped and
fallen off the bow and plunged into the wintry waters with just his deck
clothes on. He looked on helplessly as his boat steamed off with his
son, unaware anything had happened, busy cleaning up the stern deck.
Coccoro felt the
cold penetrating deep into his bones, leaching vital heat that kept his
brain and other organs functioning. Hypothermia has a cruel equation,
known to rescuers, that gave Coccoro, submerged in 45-degree water, half
an hour to get to shore before losing consciousness. Death would occur
at between one and three hours.
Coccoro's story had
a happy ending. Chatham Harbor Master Stuart Smith, alerted to Coccoro's
plight and heading out to the general area he was believed to have been
lost, changed the course of his search to investigate something that
caught his eye. He ended up hauling Coccoro to safety.
But what if Coccoro
hadn't needed to wait for something like Smith's change of course? If
he'd had a button he could press to get him out of the water more
quickly, he would have.
Six years later,
technology has provided mariners and outdoorsmen with the button that
promises to take the "search" out of search and rescue, anywhere in the
Communications Commission ruling last month allowing so-called personal
locator beacons to use a higher frequency has paved the way for their
use in this country.
A little bigger
than a cell phone, waterproof, shockproof and capable of beaming a
rescue signal to a satellite from anywhere in the world, the personal
locator beacon, or PLB, is a wilderness and marine 911 that may finally
make it nearly impossible to get lost anywhere at sea or on land.
"We'll find you, no
matter what area you're in," promised Lt. Dan Carlson, support officer
for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's search and
rescue satellite headquarters in Suitland, Md.
The beacons work as
part of a system known as SARSAT, for Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided
Tracking (Editors Note: To read more about SARSAT, go to
www.americanboating.org/cospas.htm). At the flick of a switch,
the devices send up a signal 50 times more powerful than a Global
Positioning System signal and 20 times stronger than a cell phone.
The signal is
picked up by any of five NOAA environmental satellites or two Russian
satellites, all orbiting at 700 miles up. Signals also can be received
by geo-stationary satellites 22,000 miles up and flying at the same
speed as the Earth's rotation.
The PLB's digital
signal can broadcast more data than the old analog signal, including
information identifying the sender and, if equipped, Global Positioning
System (GPS) coordinates locating the signal source to within 100 yards.
The low-orbiting satellites also can find the sender by homing in on the
strongest signal, narrowing the search area down to three square miles.
That position is
transmitted to a ground station in Maryland. From there, phone numbers
registered to that PLB user are automatically dialed. If the person
doesn't answer, staff at the Maryland station contact the appropriate
What the FCC ruling
did was to allow the PLBs to use the higher frequency already used by
emergency position-indicating radio beacons, or EPIRBs. The old PLB
frequency was cluttered with airline chatter and signals generated by
apparatus such as pizza ovens and electronic scoreboards, resulting in
hundreds of false emergency alerts every day, Carlson said.
The new frequency
has been averaging just a dozen alerts per day and operators can quickly
determine the veracity of a rescue call by simply dialing the phone
numbers associated with the distinctive serial number embedded in the
Carlson said the
biggest concern is that encouraging outdoorsmen and mariners to carry
PLBs could open the door to many more false distress calls.
But in Alaska, with
its vast tracts of inhospitable wilderness and dangerous seas, the PLB
has been in use at the higher frequency since 1994. False alarms just
haven't happened. In 2001, 54 lives were saved using PLBs in Alaska,
with only one false distress recorded.
broadcast over radio, PLBs let rescuers know who has issued the call for
help, thanks to each unit's unique identifying signal. Lack of anonymity
has helped deter false reporting.
"For the outdoor
market, this is a whole new device. They haven't seen anything like this
before," said Chris Wahler, director of marketing for ACR Electronics in
Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a manufacturer of PLBs.
There are now
around 100,000 emergency beacons using the higher frequency, 90 percent
of them EPIRBs on ships. Around 400 PLBs are being used in the United
States, but Wahler expects the new FCC ruling will increase demand.
Carlson said NOAA is prepared to handle another 100,000 or more PLBs.
Right now, prices
are high, at between $600 and $1,000 or more per unit, but Wahler said
volume could rise to match EPIRBs', and that would bring down prices.
Search and rescues
are also expensive. According to the Coast Guard Search and Rescue Web
site, it costs $3,700 per hour to run aircraft, $1,550 per hour for a
medium-size ship and $300 to $400 per hour for a small rescue craft.
"Usually the people
we're looking for are in the water. Trying to find a head half the size
of a basketball is truly a needle in a haystack," said Smith, the
Chatham harbor master.
He was impressed by
the potential of the PLB and had a realistic take on the expense.
"I would think
every crew member would want to have one," he said. "It's expensive, but
it's somebody's life."
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