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July 2023 Issue
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PLBs: The gold standard emergency device

If possible, activate your beacon early to help rescuers reach you in daylight hours. Photo: Ian Selwood, Greymouth Land Search and Rescue

No matter how careful you are, sometimes things go wrong. What’s the best way to summon help?

Always take communication equipment suitable for your trip; it could be a life-saver in emergencies such as injury, getting lost or bluffed.

With cell phone network provider OneNZ soon to offer full coverage throughout New Zealand thanks to the Starlink satellite network, some people are suggesting a mobile phone will soon be the only safety device you need to take on a trip.

However, rescue professionals still consider a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)  to be the gold-standard device for an emergency requiring urgent evacuation. When activated, a PLB sends a signal to a satellite which transmits your exact location to emergency services. The signal doesn’t provide the status of an emergency, but Search and Rescue personnel will treat it as urgent and get to you as soon as possible.

PLBs can be hired or purchased. If purchased, a beacon should be registered at This process sets up your emergency contact. Make sure your contact person knows your intentions, because when your beacon is activated, rescue services will call them for details  of your plans.

Before leaving home, check the beacon’s battery expiry date, and test the beacon using the test function. Make sure you know how to operate it before you desperately need to do so. Carry the PLB on your body rather than in your pack in case you become separated from the pack.

Only use a PLB when rescue is required. Activate it if you think a search is likely to be underway, because it will show your location and reduce the time it takes for you to be found. If you send a false alarm, get a message to the NZ Rescue Coordination Centre RCCNZ (0508 472 269) or police as soon as possible.

When activating your PLB follow the manufacturer’s instructions. You need a clear view of the sky for the device to connect with passing satellites. If you are under heavy canopy, try to find an open space in the trees. Move out of a hut or snow cave and point the aerial to the sky away from structures that may block a signal. If you are in a deep valley or gorge, aim it towards the highest point. There may be delays in the signal getting out.

A homing function on the beacon enables searchers to home-in on your location, so don’t turn off the beacon until you’re notified to do so by emergency services, even if the emergency resolves itself. Stay put until help arrives or you’re advised to move.

Be prepared to wait. Conditions may be good where you are but not where rescue is coming from or through which a helicopter needs to pass. If a helicopter can’t come all the way, it may drop a ground party to walk the remainder.

Each situation will determine the  best time to activate a beacon. If possible, activate a PLB early in the day to give rescuers the best chance of reaching you during daylight. If a situation is unlikely to be resolved, don’t wait until later in the day. At night it may be better to wait until daylight if doing so will not put you in danger. In a developing situation with deteriorating weather, it may be better to activate the beacon early while a helicopter can fly, rather than waiting until you are sure rescue is needed. By then the helicopter may be grounded.

Following use, turn the beacon off and get it serviced. The battery will need to be checked or replaced, or the device itself replaced.