Spring 2012


Grad Student, Professor Shine Light on Personal Locator Beacons

Personal locator beacons can help get hikers out of sticky situations, but also might encourage risky behavior.Personal locator beacons can help get hikers out of sticky situations, but also might encourage risky behavior.

SINCE HITTING THE MARKET in 2003, personal locator beacons have saved hundreds of people from life-threatening wilderness situations. The satellite-linked devices alert search and rescue teams to the precise location of a person in danger, and can often mean the difference between life and death.

But in recent years, a growing number of people have started using the devices for non-emergencies—alerting authorities about water that’s too salty, or making an emergency call for a snoring partner—according to research by HSU graduate student Kristen Pope (´11, Natural Resources) and Professor Steve Martin.

The research was detailed in the August issue of the International Journal of Wilderness. The article examines public perceptions of personal locator beacons, the false sense of security they can provide and the repercussions for land-use managers and the public.

Pope and Martin’s field research focused on public perceptions of technology use. They surveyed 235 visitors to California’s King Range Wilderness area in 2009 and found that 55 percent of respondents were “pro-technology.” These people were more likely to take risks and to use a satellite-linked emergency device to request a rescue than the remaining “anti-technology” respondents, many of whom were more experienced, had personal experience with a life-threatening wilderness situation, and believed technology should not take the place of skill, experience and knowledge.

“Devices like personal locator beacons are fantastic when used properly because they really reduce the challenges associated with doing search and rescue,” says Martin, who is chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Management. “But some people are using them as an inappropriate substitute for experience, skill and good judgment.”