Personal beacon used in first rescue
/ Published November 17, 2003
LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. (AFPN) -- A Cleveland man was rescued Nov. 14 through the help of a personal locator beacon and efforts of Air Force Rescue Coordination Center officials here.
The rescue marks the first such use of personal locator beacons in the contiguous United States.
Carl Skalak was in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York when he was snowed in at his campsite. Faced with frigid weather, 4-foot snow drifts and a frozen river that he had paddled in on, Skalak activated his beacon, alerting the rescue center of a distress. The center is the single federal agency for search and rescue in the 48 contiguous states.
Center officials received the distress call at 10:45 a.m. EST via the Search and Rescue Satellite Air Tracking System, which is operated by people at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
When the beacon alert came in, center officials notified the appropriate state emergency-rescue agency, said Lt. Col. Scott Morgan, the center's commander. In this case, the Herkimer County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s Department worked with the center and provided information to the U.S. Forest Service at Watson East Triangle.
"The center has many resources available to dispatch on a moment's notice to aid in search-and-rescue efforts," Morgan said. "The beacons help pinpoint the location of a person in distress."
Because of heavy snows, forest service rangers were unable to reach Skalak’s campsite and requested flight assistance. The rescue center scrambled the Fort Drum Air Ambulance Detachment, which launched a UH-1 Huey helicopter and medical team to assist in the search effort.
Upon arriving on scene, the rescue crew received a flashlight signal from Skalak who was then airlifted to Fort Drum for medical evaluation before being released.
"A thank you doesn’t even begin to cover my appreciation," Skalak said. "I am profoundly thankful for all those who were willing to put themselves in harm's way on my behalf. Many terrific people worked together to make this mission a success."
The team effort is what makes the beacon system a success, Morgan said.
“Working together, we have been able to establish a system that which allows for a quicker response by emergency personnel,” he said.
The beacon sends out digital-distress signals detected by NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites and Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites.
The geostationary satellites, 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 polar satellites constantly circle the globe, enabling them to capture and accurately locate the alerts to within a few miles.
When individuals purchase the beacons, they are required to register them with NOAA. This registration, according to NOAA officials, includes critical information such as the owner's name, address, telephone number and the beacon's identification number. When a distress signal is received, the information is checked against the database to determine the identity of the missing person.
"The beacon is an effective tool only if people take the time to register it," Morgan said. "With this information, the center can validate an alert with one phone call to the emergency contact number on the registration."
The system worked like a gem, said NOAA officials.
"This particular rescue demonstrates how well our agencies work together when it comes to saving a life," said Ajay Mehta, of the NOAA. "The AFRCC, in particular, has really taken the lead for implementing (the beacons) across the nation and has worked with us and the states to ensure a robust search and rescue network was in place. This first rescue is a testament to our collective efforts.”
The lifesaving satellite-tracked distress alerts carried by aviators and mariners became available to outdoor adventurers July 1. Previously, these beacons were only available for personal use in Alaska under a test program to evaluate the usefulness in search and rescue. The success seen in Alaska paved the way for the technology to be used throughout the rest of the nation. (Courtesy of Air Force Special Operations Command News Service. NOAA Public Relations contributed to this story.)