Monday 12 February 2018

When to use a PLB

This article was written for Argus - the member's magazine of the Victorian Climbing Club

Before I get into the details, I have to clean up a couple of fairy tales:

Magical Phones

If you see the "No Service" or similar on your phone, that's pretty much it. Your phone is as useless as your coffee cup or a brick. NO! Neither of them will magically turn into a satellite communication device. I see that proposed in hiking forums all the time but it's a myth.

All SatCom devices work - NOT

All PLBs/EPIRBs* have very limited function - "I need help! I'm here" - but they do it very well. They are cheap and very reliable. You can't go wrong with any model. However if you need a bit more function, you got a couple of options for off-grid (emergency) communication
  • Satellite Phone >> Not so cheap but great functionality
  • Garmin inReach  >>  two-way satellite messenger and tracker 
  • Iridium Go >> Mobile data thingymebob
  • Old fashioned radio >> Can be a bit bulky, you need a licence and somebody listening on the other end
  • Spot Messenger >> Not an option! They are unreliable, Bogong Equipment took them off their shelves and the Victorian Climbing Club banned them as an emergency communication device. I can tell you a bunch of stories how the spot system failed. 
There you have it. Some of these units might leave you disappointed so choose wisely. 

I don't need emergency gear if I have a PLB - ERRRR! WRONG!

If you're that remote that you need a PLB, rescue is not around the corner. You can still die of that snake bite because you didn't bring any bandages, fall to your death because you didn't bring the self-rescue climbing gear or just freeze to death because you didn't bring the emergency bivy-bag.

If I call 000, they know my location - NAAAH MATE!

Sorry to break it to you but they might get the location of the closest mobile-tower you're locked onto but not your actual GPS location. If you're in rugged terrain and you're position is difficult to describe and/or you're not familiar with GPS, you can call 000 AND activate the PLB.
Pro-tip while you're on the phone: DON'T ASK FOR AN AMBULANCE! Ask for the police. They are the ones doing rescue operations > there's a specialised Police Search and Rescue unit based in Williamstown and you want them on the job without delay.

Right. All good? Let's get into it:

As the VCC Safety Cat, I recently bought two PLBs which live in the club's first aid kits. There's a manual which tells you how to activate them (flick open the antenna, slide down the red protective cover, press SOS button) ... but not when. AMSA simply states:
A distress beacon should be activated in situations of grave and imminent danger. This equates to when you feel you are facing a life threatening situation. This is a personal decision that is different for everybody.
Let me put that in different words: "Do you have the skills and training to extract the person in danger safely from the current situation?" Instead of giving you a complicated flow-chart and complicated decision making tool, let me run you through a couple of likely VCC trip scenarios. In all scenarios we assume there's no phone reception:

Snake Bite
You're at the base of Taipan Wall and Flopsy got bitten by a snake (pun intended).
✔ That's a no-brainer > press the button! Time is of the essence and using the PLB takes the Search out of Search And Rescue.

Ground Fall
Flopsy took a big whipper and hit the deck. You're not sure if anything is broken and/or he is pretty disoriented.
✔ Button! You don't know if there are any internal injuries. Don't wait for them to get better because these minutes can make a difference. As a matter of fact any suspected internal injuries is a clear indication of alerting emergency services asap.

Multi Pitch Bang
You're up a multi-pitch climb and Flopsy who is your second took a nice slip. Although physically he has nothing serious (a couple of scratches and bruises), Flopsy is pretty shaken and unable to continue the climb or abseil.
It depends:
❌ If you feel comfortable to perform a self-rescue and get both of you off the wall safely, there's no need to call for help.
✔ If you're not comfortable to do the self-rescue or think it will take too long or have any other doubt > button!

Ran out of fire-wood
Don't laugh! People have done that in the past but you're right the correct answer is:
❌ Don't push the button.

You stumble upon an unconscious person
That's straight forward: Even if they regain consciousness, there could be a million things wrong and it's important to get them to a hospital asap. You are
✔ pushing the button.

Rolled ankle
Your party is walking from / to the crag and is a fair distance from the trail-head. Flopsy rolled his ankle and can't continue to walk - seriously?! What's wrong with this guy. Getting hurt all the time!!
It depends:
❌ If you're in Summerday Valley and can carry him out, it's probably faster than waiting for the ambo.
✔ Deep down the south-face of Bogong is not good place to start hiking someone out. As a matter of fact you wouldn't be the first one air-lifted from that valley. Push the button

Injured Animal
You find an injured animal in a remote location.
❌ As heartbreaking as this might be - emergency services are for humans only.

I hope that gives you a good overview when to use these devices. Personally I prefer two-way communication since I can get confirmation my distress call has been received and I can provide the emergency services with valuable information. In certain cases it can also keep the helpers safe: If I roll my ankle in a snow-storm but I'm hunkered down and warm, I can tell the guys to wait until the morning / the storm has passed. There's no need to risk anything. On the other hand you can also tell them to hurry the f#$& up if required.

SAR steep snow and ice training

Keep your details updated

When you register any of these devices, you have to provide your contact details. This is important since they'll try to contact you first and figure out if it isn't an accidental activation - see below. Ideally you do that before leaving for every trip with a brief description what you're up to. In cooperation with Bushwalking Victoria and Trailhiking Australia the VCC is currently exploring  the feasibility of an online trip intentions form however it's only at early stages. 

Accidental activation

If your beacon is accidentally activated, switch it off immediately and contact the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) on 1800 641 792. There is no penalty for accidental activation. Don't just turn it off because emergency services will assume your battery has gone flat and will continue the search.

A false alarm is a good alarm

As long as you're not calling for help for fun, nobody will give you a lecture or present you a bill**. As an active SAR member I'd rather find someone who suspected to have a broken leg and is fine than someone who had a broken leg, didn't call for help and died. Always remember: There's one basic rule:

In doubt, there's no doubt! Push the button! 

Some things we consider to be minor in an urban environment like bee stings, smaller fractures or simple exhaustion, can have severe consequences in the wild. Please call in the big guns before the situation gets FUBAR.

Cheers šŸ»
Philipp the VCC Safety Cat 

* An EPIRB is technically almost the same as a PLB except it floats, has a bit more battery life and normally activates upon water contact. If you're doing any land-based activities and you use an EPIRB instead of a PLB, that's perfectly fine. I wouldn't recommend using a PLB on the water.

** Still make sure you have adequate ambulance insurance.

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