Personal locator beacon may help rescuers

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(Host) An unusual demonstration took place Tuesday morning in Waterbury. Police, military and state officials staged a mock rescue to introduce a new method for locating people who are in distress.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Officials say a new, high tech era in search and rescue began Tuesday when they inaugurated the country’s first system for finding lost and injured people using a Personal Locator Beacon. The beacon is a rugged unit about the size and shape of a transistor radio.

(Sound from the demonstration) “Governor, if you would.”
(Governor Douglas) “Thank you, Colonel, for letting us go first.”

(Zind) Turn it on, as Governor Jim Douglas did Tuesday morning, and the Personal Locator Beacon sends a signal to a satellite which then relays it to a Vermont State Police rescue unit. Rescuers can quickly pinpoint the location of the beacon, eliminating a time consuming and costly search.

Vermont is the first state to arrange to have the beacon’s signal go directly to the state police. Outside of Vermont, the signal will go to a central location operated by the Air Force.

Personal Locator Beacons aren’t cheap: each unit costs about $1,000. Colonel Scott Morgan of the Airforce Rescue Coordination Center says the price will probably drop considerably as demand for the beacons increases. Morgan says owning a beacon will come in handy in lots of situations.

(Morgan) “I like to hunt, so I’ll be taking it with me hunting. I like to fish. I’ll be carrying it with me fishing. I’m also a pilot. So I can take it on a small airplane. Also, a big issue here in Vermont is the out-of-bounds skiers. We would like to see the ski industry purchase these and then rent them out to the skiers.”

(Zind) Morgan says Vermont was chosen as the first site for the new system because of the state’s dense forests, mountainous terrain and the number of tourists who hike and ski. Police answer about 30 search and rescue calls each year in Vermont.

Morgan is based at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. He grew up in the St. Albans area. His old Boy Scout Troup helped stage the mock rescue. They pretended to need help for an injured scout and used the beacon to summon a search plane which marked their location for rescuers on the ground.

(Sound of an airplane overhead during mock rescue) “Hey! Hey, down here!”

(Zind) Officials hope systems to monitor Personal Locator Beacons will be in place around the country in the next five years.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Waterbury.

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