When to activate a PLB?

Thinking through what amounts to a life-threatening emergency

You just activated a nuclear warhead, my friend. John Travolta

It’s important to remember that a PLB is a last resort, only to be turned on in life-threatening situations and when no other direct communication is available. Wherever possible, your emergency call should still be made by telephone, which allows two-way communications and results in a faster and more appropriate response.

What amounts to a life-threatening emergency
When you feel that you are in a situation of grave and imminent danger. Some examples of life threatening situations are if someone is:

  • Suspected of having a heart attack
  • Unconscious
  • Having a severe asthma attack and not responding to medication
  • Hurt badly from a fall
  • Acting irrationally after a blow to the head and you suspect a brain injury
  • Burned badly from a fuel stove explosion
  • Bitten by a snake
  • Lost and unable to recover
  • Caught in a bushfire
  • Serious injury were delay in self rescue may cause longterm impairment (eg stick in eye or broken leg)

It does not take a lot for a relatively minor injury or illness to become life threatening if the group attempts to self-evacuate. Consider the injury and whether it is life threatening in the context of the environment you are in. Someone who is potentially having a heart attack needs medical aid urgently. Even with good first aid, someone with a broken leg may go into shock or tear a blood vessel.

There is no need to try to be a hero if it puts other people’s lives at risk. If you have a genuine concern for someone’s welfare, and it is reasonable to think their life or serious injury is at stake then activate the PLB. If you feel that time is on your side then consider options such as splitting the party to send a message, but this also introduces risks, so take care.

When not to activate the PLB
The emergency services provided in Australia are amazing. When a PLB is activated the emergency services have very little information and assume the need is urgent and life threatening. Responding to a PLB may take resources away from other cases that are assumed to be less urgent.

In general, the following scenarios can be dealt with without activating a PLB:

  • If you are simply overdue from a walk.
  • Minor injuries or illness.
  • Running late for an aeroplane flight (yes it has happened, don’t do it yourself).


Accidental activation
If your beacon has been activated accidentally then turn it off and phone the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA)1800 641 792 as quickly as possible to let them know that it was a false activation. There is no penalty for accidental activation.