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Virginia search-and-rescue group says radio transmitters could save missing hikers

1/16/2007

RICHMOND, Va. — A search-and-rescue group's wristwatch-size
radio transmitters have helped track missing Alzheimer's patients
and autistic children.

Now the group wants to offer the technology
to help find lost hikers.

The National Park Service has agreed to experiment with Project
Lifesaver International's transmitters, although officials say
electronic devices often provide a false sense of security.

The transmitters are to be demonstrated for park service
officials on Alaska's Mount McKinley in the next few months.

Mount
McKinley's extreme conditions — it's the tallest mountain in North
America — make it an attractive spot to experiment with the
equipment, said Kathryn Healey-Flores, a program development
officer at Project Lifesaver.

The group started providing the transmitters in 1999 to police
departments and emergency agencies in and around the city of
Chesapeake. Sales have expanded to 530 agencies in 40 states and
Canada.

Autistic children and other dependents are outfitted with a
wristband or an ankle bracelet that sends out a radio pulse every
second, project spokesman Jay Smith said.

Smith said the radio signals can be read from 2,500 feet in the
air. They also don't require satellite technology and have a 45-day
battery.

If someone wanders away from home, a caregiver calls an 800
number, and searchers are often able to find the missing person
within minutes using a tracker, he said.

``We find most people within a mile of their house,'' said Mike
Catron, a police officer in Virginia's Chesterfield County.

Project Lifesaver, a nonprofit based in Chesapeake, believes
that hikers going into treacherous terrain during winter months
could be required to rent the equipment at a trailhead Park Service
station.

If hikers become lost, or aren't heard from for several
days, searchers could track the radio signals to narrow down a
search area.

Using electronic devices for wilderness search and rescue would
save valuable time, as well as public money, said Healey-Flores.
``The dollars spent on search and rescue can be prohibitive,'' she
said.

While the National Park Service has agreed to experiment with
the device, it will only offer them to forest rangers, said Dan
Portbriand, the park service's branch chief for emergency services.

It would complement other electronic devices, since there are often
blackout spots in cell-phone or two-way radio coverage, he said.

``This is not a stand-alone device,'' he said. ``Should this be
used in place of a radio? Not a good idea.''

The technology behind Project Lifesaver's radio transmitter has
been around for years and originally was used to track wildlife.

These days there are personal locater beacons, portable satellite
phones and devices that use the Global Positioning System — not to
mention the growing prevalence of cell phones.

Portbriand, who oversees search and rescue for 400 federal
parks, said park service officials have been concerned that new
developments in personal technology are leading people to take more
extreme risks in the wild.

``People get this false sense of security that all you have to
do is push a button,'' Portbriand said. ``But it should not replace
common sense.''

Park service officials said the radio transmitters couldn't have
prevented a tragedy like the one on Oregon's Mount Hood last month,
in which one hiker was found dead and two went missing after a week
of blizzard storms on the mountain's treacherous north side.

The Mount Hood hikers had cell phones, and that helped in
alerting rescuers.

``That was all fine and dandy,'' Portbriand
said. ``But they still couldn't get up there for a five days
because of the weather.''