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The 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacon

written by: Daniel P. McGoldrick•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 6/10/2009

This article presents a brief overview of what 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are, along with when and why they should be used instead of other GPS devices or cell phones. Also included is the criteria you should use to evaluate what the best make and model is for your purposes.

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    406 MHz PLB Overview

    A PLB, specifically a 406 MHz model, was designed specifically for the purposes of rescuing people who will most likely perish without assistance. The entire system (from the hand held device itself to the specific satellites designed to receive the signal to the coordinated monitoring/relaying agencies around the world, and finally to the built-in homing mechanism on the device) was designed for optimum success by the world wide search and rescue community exclusively for this purpose.

    Therefore, other GPS devices, cell phones, and satellite phones are not as capable as a PLB for remotely tracking down and locating people in distress who have activated their beacon. For some specifics on who might want to have one of these life-saving gadgets, read Why Have a Portable GPS with a Beacon? That article also lists the outdoor activities and situations that a person would want to have a PLB with them (on their person or in a pack) such as offshore boating/sailing and snowshoeing in the mountains, for example.

    A PLB is only activated in an absolute emergency situation when there is no chance left for self-rescue. Once activated, a constant signal lets the emergency authorities that monitor for activated beacons know exactly who you are and where you are (in virtually any corner of the globe). Emergency personnel will then respond, sometimes in great numbers depending upon the terrain and remoteness of the place, in the area where the rescue needs to happen. A highly coordinated system is in place that alerts rescue personnel closest to where the incident is with amazing rapidity. That’s a lot of tax payer money and it puts those brave search and rescue folks at risk, too.

    Therefore, the circumstances you need to meet in order to activate a PLB in paraphrased legalese are that the person enabling the device must be in jeopardy of losing their life, eyesight, a limb, or a have medical condition that will prove fatal without emergency assistance from rescue authorities. Obviously that applies to all members of the party in trouble. PLB’s just became legal in the United States for use on the land in 2003 so they’re a relatively new product.

    The Criteria for the Best Land-Based PLB

    The signal should have the latest and most effective satellite-locking technology. This means both the signal that hits the satellite and the separate, second signal which acts as a homing beacon to the rescuers on the ground or in the air looking for you. Both should work in deep canyons and thick forests, no matter what type of meteorological activity is occurring. So you’ll want the 406 Mhz signal to transmit your position to space and a 121.5 MHz homing signal to attract the choppers or ground forces who are out there searching for you. The 406 MHz technology has saved over 24,500 lives worldwide.

    Your GPS beacon should be water proof and highly durable because inclement weather tends to be part of an emergency situation. You’ll want to make sure that the battery life of the device is long both in terms of the years it will last without being activated and the hourly operational duration when it is activated. A PLB must be registered so your signal will let the proper authorities know who you are if the button is ever pushed. Annual subscription fees are usually a hassle and can be avoided with certain models.

    It’s also important to consider what situations and activities you plan on using it for when choosing a model. Most importantly in the assessment is whether the device has a proven track record of success. ACR Electronics is a leading manufacturer in this technology and they’ve been established for over 50 years. Read reviews of personal locator beacons right here in this series; the links are at the bottom of the page. The McMurdo Fast Find 210 is also a brand and a series that you should look into.

The 406 MHZ PLB Explained and Reviews of The Best Models

In this informative series you will learn what a Persolonal Locator Beacon with GPS is, how they work in conjunction with satellites and rescue authorities, and what features make the best device model. Also included are reviews of two ACR PLBs; the Terrafix 406 GPS PLB and the Resqfix 406.
  1. The 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacon
  2. The Workings of a 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacon
  3. A Review of the ACR TerraFix 406 GPS I/O PLB with GPS
  4. ACR ResQFix 406 Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) with GPS – 2897 Review