PLBs and Media

Lately there’s been an obvious promotional push from Police, the RCCNZ and SAR officials to tell people to carry PLBs (Personal Locator Beacon) when they visit the outdoors. This makes sense as a progressive way to be able to indicate distress, but I’ve found it interesting to watch how the message is injected into the media machine.

It’s now standard, in a New Zealand media article about a back-country search and/or rescue, to see a comment about whether or not a person is believed to be carrying an emergency beacon. For better or worse, those who aren’t are often criticised as if they should be. The latest story to be pushed into the press is this one, repeated in several media outlets, which uses a recent incident in Milford Sound as an excuse to advise everyone to carry beacons. Browsing the comment thread under the above-linked article, the initially expressed public opinions mostly seem to be one-dimensional about how great and useful beacons are and how people are idiots not to carry them. Until the second wave of responding comments from readers, there was no acknowledgement that a PLB is effectively an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff which transmits no message except “fly a helicopter here to find out what my problem is”.

Then there are editorials like this one, from the Nelson Mail, where the editor takes the bait of all those press releases and interviewee comments regarding PLBs over the past year or two, and criticises a presently missing tramper for not carrying a PLB, and then tries to use it as partial justification for charging for rescue. I won’t get into the arguments against SAR charging here and now, except to comment that there are many arguments against it and I completely disagree with the idea.

I definitely agree with the message that carrying a PLB, or some other kind of emergency communications device, is a good idea. It’s an especially a good idea for consideration by people out by themselves, for people visiting remote locations, and for people intending to be in the hills for a lengthy period of time. That said, the message also often seems simplified to the extent that it loses some context. I’d hate for people to be discouraged from visiting the outdoors because they don’t have a PLB, either because it’s too expensive (roughly $600) or because it’s inconvenient to hire one.

Carrying a PLB is a useful thing, but it’s not a silver bullet. For me, still doesn’t trump the basic standard advice for decades. ie. Things like having a plan for where you’re going prior to leaving home, sticking to that plan, telling a trustworthy person all the relevant information before you leave, taking portable shelter and food so that if something happens then you can wait long enough for help to arrive, remaining in your own comfort zone, and only attempting risky things for which you have necessary skills.

If all of the above has already been done, a PLB will likely result in a faster rescue, but it often won’t make a difference between life or death. If you have a problem that requires emergency attention, such as a head injury, then a PLB may make a critical difference, as long as someone’s present who’s alive and conscious and able to press the button. A PLB will probably also result in a less expensive rescue for emergency services, keeping in mind all the money being privately spent on PLBs that may never be used, although sticking to a pre-provided plan also helps a lot with minimising search costs.

The context that’s missing in the simplified “always carry a PLB” message is provided much more usefully by the Adventure Smart website, which is also clearly being pushed by various SAR-related media releases. That website has more complete and useful guides of how to plan properly, and references useful comparisons between PLBs and their alternatives. Such a complex message, however, is by no means as simple as the dumbed-down “always carry a PLB” being subconsciously transmitted in all directions.

PLBs are making their way into people’s standard equipment, whether many of those people understand how to use them or not. This is probably a good thing but it also results in stories such as this one in which people were criticised for activating their PLB because they were “tired”, or this one regarding an ironic dilemma in a situation which probably have solved itself if a PLB hadn’t been available. Somehow this type of story reaches the media and tends to antagonise readers further, often citing costs of needless callouts.

Mis-use of PLBs seems a consequence of the policy to promote use of PLBs far and wide by as many people as possible, even those who might not clearly understand what an emergency is, and if that wasn’t budgeted for when planning the public relations strategy then it should have been. When it occurs, however, it should really be taken in the context of overall costs being lessened through the higher use of PLBs everywhere. Hopefully the publicity won’t result in anything irrational happening.

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