New PLB and a visit to the JRCC

Information session, April 27, 2015

We recently had the chance to attend an information session held at the backup Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Halifax, NS. The timing was perfect because we had just received our new personal locator beacon in the mail. More on that below.

The JRCC evening was organized in conjunction with Canoe Kayak Nova Scotia, though most of the information was relevant to people who travel on land as well as paddlers. It was a fantastic event with information coming directly from the people who know it best – representatives from Halifax Regional Search and Rescue, RCMP (Incident Commander), Coast Guard (Maritime SAR Coordinator) and Air Force (SAR Tech), as well as members of the paddling community.

In addition to some paddle-specific information, the evening was mainly focussed on helping people understand how they can make a call for help and what happens after the call is made. But most importantly each speaker talked about responsibility. They made it very clear that their responsibility is to find us and rescue us, but that we have responsibilities too:

– To do everything we can to prevent needing help in the first place

– If we need help, to be able to tell them where we are and to keep ourselves alive and help them find us.

A few highlights on staying safe in the first place

Learn, plan, practice… and repeat… Take courses, read, talk to fellow adventurers and learn from the internet, but make sure you take the time to actually put the skills into practice.

Prepare before you go! Proper trip planning is what allows you to understand and manage risk.

Leave a trip plan. A trip plan is an important tool, but be mindful that by itself, it can’t alert anyone to a problem unless you are overdue. You must also consider what you would do if something went wrong at the beginning of a multi-day trip.

A few highlights on rescue

You must be able to alert searchers. A cell phone can save lives but is also highly unreliable (battery, service…).  If you do have to call for help, it’s important to do it BEFORE your battery is dying. If your only option is a cell and service is very limited, you may have better luck with a text message (you can’t directly text 911 or the JRCC in Nova Scotia though). Learn about other communication options (VHF radios, satellite phones, satellite emergency notification devices, personal locator beacons) and figure out what makes the most sense for you.

You must be able to communicate your location. 911 operators will ask for a civic address. JRCC prefer latitude/longitude. Ground Search and Rescue uses UTM. Most important is to be able to communicate the best information you have and to know what system you are using. Also, if you are travelling near the coast, your 911 call may be answered by an operator in another province (NS, NB, PEI). To avoid confusion, always state which province you are travelling in. If you cannot report your specific location (or if the service is too sketchy to have a clear conversation), they will try to track your phone location, but be aware that depending on towers in the area, they may only be able to pinpoint you to somewhere within a 20+ kilometer radius.

Stay put and help rescuers find you. Bright colours on land and ALWAYS wear an orange (or yellow) PFD on the water. SAR Tech helicopters Do Not! have infrared spotting – they use human eyes from a moving helicopter. You need to make yourself seen! Also carry a whistle and mirror/reflective material for signalling.

Stay alive until they get there. Make sure you have the right knowledge, skills and gear to buy yourself time. Also know that response times vary, and that some services that used to exist have been decreased or eliminated.

Now onto the “new toy” section of this post. Here it goes…

We frequently travel on land in wilderness areas without cell service, and knew that we wanted to have a way to call for help in case of an emergency. There are a variety of handheld units, and at first glance it can be a little confusing. Once we started to do the research, we quickly decided that a PLB was the way to go. This session confirmed that we made the right choice!

We had first started looking at Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SEND) like the Spot and InReach because they have some messaging capabilities in addition to being able to transmit a distress signal, along with a few other bells and whistles. They are less expensive to purchase up front but are generally fee-based units (think annual subscription). They transmit to private, for-profit satellite networks and emergency messages are then relayed on to the appropriate authorities. Potential issues with these devices include failure to transmit messages (especially the non-emergency or the “bells and whistles” features) and delays in emergency messages being received by the appropriate local authorities.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are 406MHz emergency beacons with only one function – to transmit a distress signal and location directly to Cospas-Sarsat satellites. Cospas-Sarsat are essentially non-profit intergovernmental satellites maintained by 43 countries and organizations and have global coverage. Around here, any such signals arrive directly at the JRCC within minutes (or less). There are a variety of PLBs, but they all must meet international standards and be approved by Cospas-Sarsat. Once registered in your home country, the devices work globally.

The bottom line for us – this is about knowing that help is on the way in the event of a real emergency – which means knowing that someone with a helicopter will see our message and know where we are right away. That means a PLB. If we decide that messaging is also important, we’ll consider adding another device. For now, we’ll be carrying the ACR ResQLink in addition to our usual gear and we’re happy with that decision.

The Bottom Line

YOU are responsible for your own safety. Learn to use a map, compass, and GPS, and carry them. If you’re looking for help you need a way to communicate this information. A cell can work if you have service, but if you frequently travel in wilderness areas, do some research and consider carrying a beacon!

If you ever have the chance to attend a session like this one – do it!

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