You’re on a remote Munro. The wind whips up and before you know it, you’re swept off your feet and find yourself tumbling down a steep drop and land in a heap at the bottom of it.
Searing pain envelops your leg and you can’t even stand up. There is no mobile phone reception; you haven’t seen another soul all day, so the whistle is useless. What can you do?
Equine Ramblers want the Government to allow personal locator beacons
Advocates of gadgets known as personal locator beacons (PLBs) say this is exactly the type of situation where they come into their own. With the best will in the world and, even providing you’ve left a note of your route with someone, it’s going to be a long time before you’re found.
If only you could press a button and summon the cavalry. But at present, you can’t. PLBs are not permitted on land in the UK. If you’re found using one, it can be confiscated and you may even be prosecuted. They are licensed here only for use by boats and aircraft and their potential usefulness to walkers and climbers is the subject of some debate.
Oddly, the impetus for their legalisation comes from a source not normally at the forefront of outdoor issues. Jenni Miller of Equine Ramblers – an organisation for horse riders who undertake long-distance routes, often alone – started the campaign after an accident during a six-day trek through Shropshire which left her with a broken leg.
Jenni Miller is stretchered by paramedics after her accident
Fortunately, a riding companion was able to summon help by mobile phone, but it brought home to her the stark consequences of mishaps in territory where help couldn’t be summoned by phone.
Ms Miller has set up an e-petition to lobby the Government to legalise the gadgets, ranging in size from that of a mobile phone to a paperback book, which use an international system of satellites to receive and relay distress signals.
The petition, which when we last checked had 223 signatures, including at least one mountain rescue team member, is asking the Government to change the law so that walkers, climbers, horse riders, mountain bikers and anyone who ventures into the wilds can use beacons which send a distress signal.
Jenni Miller told grough: “I was astonished last year, after breaking my leg from a fall off my horse, to discover that we have a system illegal to use inland in remote areas as a last resort when there is no mobile phone reception.
“As an Equine Rambler we ride long-distance, often away from populated areas and a personal locator beacon would be the answer to our prayers should there be no other way of getting help. You never know when you will be taken ill or have an accident. It's amazing that it's the best kept secret from all outdoor users!
“I am assured by a good source that all it requires is a change in the law and the database enlarged to accept inland registration.”
Opinion seems divided among the people who would have to respond to these beacons. David Allan, chairman of Mountain Rescue (England and Wales), the umbrella body for search and rescue teams south of the Border, told us: “We have a distinct lack of enthusiasm for them.
“The number of false calls still exceeds the number of real calls by a large factor.
“If every walker gets these things, they will be going off all over the place. They don’t give a very exact location. We have enough trouble with mobile phones.”
Mr Allan said mountain rescue teams (MRTs) were adept at finding casualties when responding to emergency calls. “There are very few people we can’t find,” he said.
Another problem he foresees is deciding how to respond to a signal from a PLB. At present, when an MRT is mobilised, it is in response to a call which will have at least some information, such as the nature of the emergency, injuries and the number of people involved.
Mountain rescuers: would PLBs help or hinder their work?
There are often instances where ‘lost’ hillwalkers are coaxed down into safety by the relaying of directions and instructions by mobile phone, without the need to put a full team on the fells to mount a rescue.
In the case of a PLB signal, Mr Allan said, there is no information, other than the person to whom it is registered and contact details. He told us: “You are forced to respond [to the beacon] and you don’t know what type of incident you’re going to. You would end up having to respond.”
There has been a lengthy and, at times, vituperative, debate on the UKClimbing website forums, some of which has accused guest-house owner Jenni Miller of having a financial interest in getting PLBs introduced into UK use, a charge she denies.
She said: “Equine Ramblers UK is not being sponsored by any other organisation in this campaign and is acting entirely out of self interest.”
The problem of false alarms is raised by others on the forums. One member of an MRT said: “With the introduction of a wide spread distribution of PLBs, the already highly-taxed SAR [search and rescue] assets will be overrun with false alarms.
“If you look at the statistics now, a greater proportion of hits are caused by accidental activation.
“I think signing this petition will have exactly the opposite result to the suggested increase of response. By diverting already limited resources for hunting for accidental activations, it will delay the emergency services.
“No land units have tracking equipment yet as far as I am aware and cost of such will probably make it prohibitive for civilian rescue teams to purchase and run.”
grough spoke to a knowledgeable source, with insight into how the devices work. He said: “The trouble is that many of these folks don’t know what PLBs can do.
“Most of the developed countries, Canada, USA, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Norway, they all permit and encourage PLB use.”
Modern beacons incorporate Global Positioning System (GPS) units which quickly give an accurate position once activated. It can take as little as three minutes for a signal detailing the location and ownership of a beacon to be received at the UK’s co-ordinating centre for search and rescue.
Our source said: “Instead of more money being spent on search and rescue, it will save money.
“The GPS beacons will go down to less than 125m. How accurate do you want?
He admitted false alerts have been a problem, particularly for maritime distress beacons, but land-based units have the lowest instance of false alarms. Design of the units and the importance of ensuring their use only in true emergencies was the key.
“The manufacturers need to be lobbied so that they don’t go off constantly and people need to be educated,” he told us.
There is a misconception that as soon as PLB alerts are received, helicopters, Nimrod aeroplanes and a horde of rescuers are immediately dispatched. This is simply not the case. All PLBs sold would need, under international law, to be registered. The beacon’s signature would be checked against a database and then enquiries made, with next of kin, or by mobile phone or whatever other means possible, to determine the response.
Rather than sending full teams on to the fells to mount a major search, a smaller number of members could be sent to the exact location of the casualty.
grough’s expert said: “If they [MRTs] have to respond, they can go up with two or three people rather than a full team.
“Beacons could actually cut the work of the MRTs.”
Climbing forums may not be the best bellwether of usefulness of the emergency beacons. Latest figures from Mountain Rescue (England and Wales) show rock climbers account for less than five per cent of incidents involving MRTs, with snow and ice climbing adding only two callouts for the whole year.
Hillwalking and scrambling, however, were the cause of 79 per cent of the teams’ activities, so it is participants in these pursuits who stand to gain the most from use of beacons. Despite the lead coming from Equine Ramblers, the strain on MRTs from horseriders is negligible. Many UKClimbing forum posters spoke of the sense of danger that is at the heart of their sport. It is highly unlikely that most hillwalkers would put the chance of imminent death or injury high on their top ten of reasons for taking to the uplands.
In Scotland, there is, not surprisingly, a higher proportion of snow and ice climbing incidents, with research by Dr Bob Sharp for sportscotland indicating that 12 per cent of Scottish MRTs’ work was due to winter climbing. This is still heavily outweighed by hillwalking and scrambling, which together caused 80 per cent of the teams’ mobilisations, virtually the same as those south of the border, with even fewer, only three per cent, due to rock climbing.
The introduction of PLBs for the outdoors in Britain would need two things: legislation enabling their use, and the setting up of a database of registered keepers. The former is down to politicians, hence Ms Miller’s e-petition; the latter would need co-operation between the police, currently responsible for co-ordinating rescue and under whose insurance MRTs operate, and rescue authorities such as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which holds the database for marine beacons.
One solution could be to use the United Kingdom Mission Control Centre (UKMCC), part of the Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre based at Kinloss in Scotland. The UKMCC uses the joint Russian-American Copsas-Sarsat satellite system at the heart of all international distress beacons. This would seem the logical place for any such information.
Equipping the UK’s 52 regional police forces with the wherewithal to track beacon owners and mobilise the right teams would be expensive and a logistical nightmare.
Chief Coastguard Peter Dymond, who has overall responsibility for reacting to signals from the three different types of beacon, the maritime Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB); the aircraft-borne Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELT), and the land-use PLBs, which can be licensed for use inland in the UK for use after an air accident, says the situation is under review.
Different distress beacons, many of which are used at sea or on aeroplanes
Mr Dymond said: “Of course, UKSAR [UK Search and Rescue] Operators Group is aware of the advantages of PLBs for people who walk, climb and visit rural and remote areas in the UK and abroad.
“Also, with false alerts now reducing through better beacon design and operator training, the group is actively considering the use of PLBs for inland UK and the requirements for their registration. This work is part of the group's work on establishing a national UK Beacon Registration Database which will include EPIRBs, ELTs and PLBs.”
However, the Chief Coastguard recognises the misgivings of many within the search-and-rescue community.
He said: “When the maritime and aeronautical beacons were introduced, the search and rescue organisations found themselves stretched due to the high level of false alerts from such devices. Consequently, there has been limited support from within UKSAR and in particular the police services for permitting the use of PLBs inland due to the potential proliferation of false alerts.”
So the use of PLBs in Britain may yet be some way off.
How would they operate, if they were permitted? The most modern units, costing typically between £200 and £300 are similar in size to outdoor GPS units. The best have a GPS receiver, so as long as you’re not in a deep ravine, a heavily wooded area or some other place where a satellite signal would be hard to obtain, you will have an instant fix.
Registration would be required on buying the devices, with information including name and address, emergency contact number and other details.
The emergency button is usually under a cover which has to be raised to operate it. This then would send a signal up to orbiting satellites. For units which don’t have a GPS receiver, the satellites use the Doppler principle to give a location of the casualty. Although not as accurate as a GPS fix, it does become more precise with subsequent passes of further satellites.
The distress alarm signal would then be picked up by UKMCC, which would alert the nearest MRT and pass on the information to the ARCC (which is actually housed in the same room!) so that an SAR helicopter could be mobilised if required and if flying conditions permit.
It would be probable that the local MRT would attempt to contact the registered person’s mobile phone number and his or her emergency contact to verify the signal. Most PLB units broadcast the emergency signal for at least 24 hours.
MRT could then use the fix from the GPS-equipped beacon to find the casualty. If they had homing equipment, which none currently do, they could use this to narrow down the search even further.
Outdoor enthusiasts may baulk at spending as much as this for something that they hope they would never have to use, but the question must then be asked: what price a life? Also, with increased production of the units, prices might fall.
Understandably, companies producing PLBs are keen to see their introduction. Portsmouth-based McMurdo, which makes beacons, said: “There’s a Government-approved organisation in place to handle it, so it’s all the more frustrating that UK infrastructure doesn’t support it.”
Jeremy Harrison, the firm’s sales and marketing director, said: “We sell thousands of PLBs worldwide, particularly to countries like the USA and Australia, whose governments have fully embraced the technology that is available to save lives”
“Would be land-based PLB users often think it’s McMurdo’s fault that they can’t use PLBs in the UK, and that we just aren’t getting our paperwork in order.
“But it’s quite a lot more complex than that. The database registry currently being used by the MCA would have to be replicated and stored by the police.
“Since the police operate from 24 regional call centres this would mean installing equipment and people on a large scale, and they would be working with Ofcom, which controls the airwaves. So the cost of the new infrastructure would be considerable. Abuse of the system is largely avoided, since each PLB owner registers all his or her personal details when taking on ownership, but larger volume usage would need careful monitoring to avoid unnecessary call outs which often involve the expensive deployment of aircraft and helicopters.”
A final word on the matter goes to another mountain rescuer who posted his support of Jenni Miller on the climbing forums. He said: “There has been a number of incidents where the casualties have misread their GPS receivers.
A classic case was where one such casualty also activated a PLB, and this is what saved his party's lives. There are literally dozens of people who have died in the UK during my time on MR who, had they been equipped with and used a PLB, would have survived.
“The other thing that should be understood is that injured persons can be found and evacuated efficiently where otherwise, they would have had to be searched for and found, a process which can take a lot of people a long time – if ever.”
The petition, should you want to see a change in the law, can be seen on the Downing Street website.