What is a PLB?

Information on PLBs

I can't change the direction of the wind,
but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination. Jimmy Dean

A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a small emergency device used in a situation that the group has deemed life-threatening. This could include pre-existing medical issues such as a condition or diabetes that flare up, or severe injuries like head injuries or snake bite. It is lightweight, small and practical, suitable for bushwalkers to carry on their person.

Most PLBs contain a Global Positioning System (GPS) to report the location, making it easier and faster for emergency services to respond appropriately.

When activated, a PLB transmits a distress signal which is detected world-wide by the global satellite system, Cospas-Sarsat, and is then relayed to the appropriate emergency services. The emergency services then dispatch a rescue team to the coordinates the beacon transmitted. Exactly how the response team is dispatched, and how quickly is can reach the party, depends on the terrain and weather conditions. Helicopters, for instance, can only operate under clear weather conditions. Sometimes a response party is sent in by foot, which means the response times vary and you still need to be prepared to wait.

As well as transmitting the PLB’s ID and location via satellite the PLB also transmits a homing signal for the search and rescue team. This can make it easier to find the PLB in dense vegetation and around cliffs.

PLBs are a single use device and the battery must be replaced after it has been activated.

How is a PLB different to an EPIRB or an ELT? Know what’s appropriate for bushwalking

PLB’s are part of a larger family of devices called ‘Distress Beacons’. They are heavily regulated devices and are required to meet very strict requirements. Sometimes you hear the names for different devices used incorrectly.

EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons) are used in ships and boats, and are designed to float upright in using the water plane as a reflector to more efficiently get the signal to the satellite. EPIRBs are required to adhere to State and Territory Marine regulations, and their required size and weight make them impractical to be used for bushwalking.
Note: A PLB is not a substitute for a Marine EPIRB.

ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitters) are designed for aviation use. They are fixed units in aircraft and automatically activated when an aircraft crashes. Again they are too large and heavy for bushwalkers.

EPIRBs and ELTs are designed to stay with your vehicle (car, boat or aircraft). You may, as an additional safety measure, choose to carry a PLB, in the event where you become separated from your vehicle.