SEATTLE - They don't come cheap and they're on the bulky side, but personal emergency locator beacons now are available nationally for hikers, mountain-climbers, cross-country skiers, cyclists and backpackers.
Manufactured by ACR Electronics of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the beacons are on sale at some Recreational Equipment Inc. stores. REI operates 66 retail stores in 24 states.
"Once it's activated, search-and-rescue can know your position within minutes," said Matt Kaplan, sales manager for ACR Electronics' outdoor division. "This product takes the search out of search and rescue."
The beacons - about 612 inches tall and weighing just over a pound - bring a brand-new technology to the outdoor business. There are two models, selling for $640 and $740.
The more expensive model has a built-in global-positioning-system receiver, using the 24 global positioning satellites - originally launched for the U.S. military - to log its whereabouts. The other model can be interfaced with existing GPS units.
Each contains a battery-powered emergency transmitter, which, when activated, sends a coded signal on internationally recognized distress frequencies to search-and-rescue agencies. They're buoyant and waterproof to a depth of 3 feet, 3 inches.
Owners of the beacons are required by law to register them with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Larger devices have been available for years for mariners and aviators.
The new devices will be a tough sell in Seattle's hardcore mountaineering community.
Harvey Manning, guidebook author and outdoor advocate, laughed out loud when he heard about the new product.
"I'm not an enemy of REI and they're in business to sell what people want, but this is preposterous," Manning said. "It goes to the point that they take so much gear and guard against so many eventualities, they might as well get in a tank and roll over the Iraqi soldiers."
Philip Kelley, 49, of Seattle carries a cell phone on some climbing trips and leaves it home on others. He won't be buying a personal locator beacon because he thinks it's too expensive and pushing the security issue too far.
"I would rather go out there and be in charge of my own well-being," Kelley said. "I spent a lot of time learning my skills and learning how not to get in trouble. I could be proven wrong some day, but I go out there to take care of myself."
Kaplan said he can understand why some longtime mountaineers are skeptical of the new gadget, but said it will save lives.
"There are people out there who are very experienced mountaineers who get into problems," he said. "Rather than having them wait days, why wouldn't they just have to wait hours?"
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