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Personal Locator Beacons

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After spending five days with his arm trapped beneath an 800-pound boulder, Aron Ralston resorted to his last option and severed the limb with a blunt pocketknife to survive. The release of a new tool, known as the personal locator beacon, offers hope that in the future no hiker or boater in an emergency situation will be out of reach of rescue personnel.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Air Force officials announced June 9 that the beacons, which act as digitally encoded distress devices for those lost in the wilderness or in other trouble, will be offered to the public for nationwide use starting July 1.

"These new personal beacons have advanced features and use the Global Positioning System technology, which makes it easier and quicker for NOAA satellites to pick up their distress signals and relay an accurate location to the rescuers," said James Mahoney, assistant secretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy NOAA administrator.

The National Park Service conducts more than 4,500 rescues of lost or injured hikers each year and hopes that public use of the new device will make it easier for rescue personnel to contact those in need of assistance, according to the Ranger Activities Division. But the agency admits that proof is yet to be seen.

A beacon works by emitting a digital distress signal on the 406 MHz frequency, which is received by the worldwide satellite search and rescue system. The system then determines the owner of the beacon and his or her location and relays this information to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, which notifies local rescue operations that the distress signal was activated.

"We want recreationists who venture into America's remote wilderness to be safe and prepared if an emergency arises. The best way to do that is to carry a 406 personal locator beacon...something which, simply put, will save many, many lives around the country," Mahoney said.

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