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HOME arrow BLOG arrow A Tracking Beacon for All?
A Tracking Beacon for All?
Written by Scott Silver   
Friday, 15 January 2010

Years ago a RFID tag was mocked-up upon into a USFS Wilderness Permit. I reported upon it in a piece titled: "Digital Angel - Invasion of Privacy takes a hike."
I wrote:

   ...The "Digital Angel" is a tiny (about the size of a grain of rice) tracking device that works in conjunction with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to allow continuous monitoring and remote tracking. It may be incorporated into identification tags/permits, inconspicuously hidden, or even implanted within the human body.

According to the manufacturer, the Digital Angel "can be used for a variety of purposes, such as providing a tamper-proof means of identification for enhanced e-business security, locating lost or missing individuals, tracking the location of valuable property and monitoring the medical conditions of at-risk patients."

One seriously proposed applications for the Digital Angel is to incorporate the device within USFS Hiking Permits. Used in conjunction with an Automatic Payment System, the Digital Angel could provide a precise method for accurately charging Wilderness Customers for the enjoyment they received. Similar versions would presumably be developed for rock climbers, ATVers, equestrians, mountain bikers and other recreational users of public lands if the Hiking Digital Angel proved to be a commercial success.

Well, that was back in 2000 and the technology is vastly "improved." Here's where the state of the art is today. It's now possible to track anything and anybody anywhere. Great stuff this technology!

Given current attitudes about Wilderness and Technology, I can see they day coming when just about all explorers of the so-called "Great Outdoors" are REQUIRED to be in possession of permits into which sophisticated tracking technology is embedded: hikers, climbers, mountain and dirtbikers alike.

Oh, who am I trying to kid suggesting that this threat is still in the future.  It's upon us now,  albeit not yet with its full panoply of refinements. I suppose some will feel comfortable allowing it to hide under the carpet until we trip on it, but I'm not content to do so.

Pasted below is an article from my local newspaper, published today and titled "A Beacon for All?" It ends with the words: "But the question remains: Does that technology help or hinder?"

Is that really the relevant question?


--- begin quoted ---
A beacon for all?
Use of personal locater devices is a hot topic among local mountaineers
By Mark Morical / The Bulletin
January 15. 2010

They supposedly take the “search” out of search and rescue.

So why are so many mountaineers and rescue personnel opposed to a requirement for Mount Hood climbers to carry locater beacons?

Three more climbing casualties on the 11,239-foot mountain last month have rekindled the debate about requiring beacons. It was the second time in three years that a search-and-rescue operation on Hood failed to turn up climbers who ascended the mountain without signaling devices and wound up dead (or presumed dead).

So, politicians, rescue crews, mountaineers and others are debating once again whether to require such climbers to carry locater beacons.

The issue was a topic of discussion Wednesday night at the Cascade Mountaineers’ monthly meeting at the Environmental Center in Bend.

Most climbers and search-and-rescue personnel in attendance said they oppose requiring beacons.

Many also feel that climbers are unfairly singled out because of the widespread media coverage of the Mount Hood searches.

On an Oregon Emergency Management list of outdoor types who needed rescuing in 2008, climbers ranked a distant 11th.

So the argument for locater beacons should also apply to backcountry skiers, snowmobilers, hikers, hunters, anglers, and so on.

But for now the focus is on climbers — and they have strong opinions on the subject.

“We believe it should be a personal decision you make,” said Bend’s Ian Morris, a member of Portland Mountain Rescue who was part of last month’s search on Mount Hood. “On this last rescue, even if they had a beacon, we probably wouldn’t have reached them. It’s more of a body-recovery device than anything at that point.”

Aaron Lish, the program coordinator for Outdoor Leadership at Central Oregon Community College, said that locater beacons might lead climbers to take more risks because they believe they will be rescued if needed.

“Folks need to go through the old school of hard knocks of learning basic skills,” Lish said. “The ethic of climbing has changed so much, and it’s partly fueled by this false sense of security.”

A variety of locater devices are available, most about the size of a TV remote. The $5 Mount Hood-specific rental beacon is older technology, and rescuers would not tune in until somebody is reported overdue. Outdoor stores sell devices that use Global Positioning System (GPS) and satellite technology to send immediate distress signals. They weigh 5 to 9 ounces and cost up to $400.

The devices discussed at Wednesday’s meeting in Bend included the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger and the ACR Electronics SARLink 406 Personal Locator Beacon.

“I can’t think of a single mission in 10 years where it’s helped save a life by itself,” Morris said of the devices, which he added can give climbers a false sense of confidence. “The people we save are the people who can take care of themselves. Are we going to put search and rescue out in the field unnecessarily, instead of having people self-saving?”

A bill to require Mount Hood climbers to carry beacons on winter expeditions failed in the Oregon Legislature in 2007. Jim Bender, a commissioner in Clackamas County — which is typically involved in search-and-rescue missions on Hood — hopes the Legislature will revisit the question, according to an Associated Press story last month. He said the county commission will attempt to implement a requirement that climbers carry locater beacons.

“We need to find a way to protect them and we need to find a way to protect the people’s resources,” Bender told the AP.

Georges Kleinbaum, search-and-rescue coordinator for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, sees a problem with enforcing a beacon requirement.

“It’s a big mountain,” he was quoted in the AP story. “Are you going to put a ring around it, or force everyone through an entry point?”

As many as 10,000 climbers attempt Mount Hood each year, based on the free permits for which they register.

Morris said the climb is not particularly difficult, though the challenge has increased in recent years due to the shifting of snow and ice. Climbing Mount Hood requires rope, crampons and an ice ax.

He added that climbing incidents on Hood tend to garner more media attention because of the mountain’s proximity to Portland (about 60 miles).

“Mount Hood attracts so much attention, whereas if somebody breaks a leg on North Sister, that’s a major (search and rescue) operation, and you’ll barely see that on the news in Portland,” Morris said.

Morris represents Portland Mountain Rescue in its stance against the requirement of locater beacons. On its Web site, PMR claims that mandating beacons actually increases the risks for both climbers and rescuers. The group argues that requiring beacons would devalue safety education by creating an “unwarranted reliance on technology,” substituting “skill, preparation and sound decision-making in the backcountry.”

PMR also notes that the biggest challenge in a rescue “is not locating a stricken climber, it’s accessing them.” Requiring beacons might foster an unrealistic expectation of rescue in unsafe weather and avalanche conditions, the Web site states.

Sheriff Joe Wampler of Hood River County calls for beacons to be required above timberline on mountains throughout Oregon, according to AP. Wampler led the 2006 search for three climbers on Mount Hood that ended with one climber’s body found in a snow cave. The bodies of the two others have never been found.

Even if a beacon signal does not lead to a rescue, Wampler said, it would help direct searchers to the body, often a concern of relatives.

Cell phones can also be used to locate missing outdoor enthusiasts, but most at Wednesday’s meeting agreed that cell phones are not altogether reliable.

“The cell phone is just not a reliable locater device,” Morris said.

Most who attended Wednesday’s meeting seemed to agree on one thing in particular: Climbers’ best way to stay safe is to count on themselves.

Lish teaches that at COCC.

“Self-reliance is a big thing we talk about,” Lish said. “We teach not being dependent on technology.”

But the question remains: Does that technology help or hinder? 

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Last Updated ( Friday, 15 January 2010 )

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