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  • Personal Locator Beacon System in Use
Jul 2003
WASHINGTON, July 4 -- Personal locator beacons (PLBs) became operational July 1 in the continental US, giving outdoor adventurers access to the same technology used in the lifesaving satellite-tracked distress alerts carried by aviators and mariners.

The beacons emit a signal that can be tracked by a worldwide satellite search-and-rescue system when they are activated in an emergency. This signal is picked up by satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The new personal beacons use global positioning system (GPS) technology, which makes it easier and quicker for NOAA satellites to pick up distress signals and relay an accurate location to rescuers. The signals are relayed to the US Mission Control Center at the NOAA Satellite and Information Center in Suitland, Md., for processing. In the US, the PLB alerts are routed to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, which notifies a state rescue agency or state police in the area in which the PLB was activated.

The PLBs send out digital distress signals on the 406-megahertz frequency, which are detected by NOAA Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) and Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (POES). GOES, the first to detect a beacon’s distress signal, hover in a fixed orbit above Earth and receive the signals, which contain registration information about the beacon and its owner. The POES constantly circle the globe, enabling them to capture and accurately locate the alerts.

The satellites are part of the worldwide satellite search-and rescue-system called COSPAS-SARSAT. The COSPAS-SARSAT system is a cluster of NOAA and Russian satellites that work together to detect distress signals anywhere in the world from PLBs and beacons aboard ships and airplanes.

PLBs will be available at outdoor sports and electronic retail outlets across the country. Owners are required by law to register them with NOAA. The registration includes the person's identifying information and the PLB’s unique identification number. The distress signal is checked against a registration database, which contains information to locate the missing person.

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