Diminishing Returns – Why Smaller Isn’t Always Better

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by Mario on November 21, 2012

in Boating Safety,EPIRB,Survival

UPDATE: The fine people at Datrex sent me a Rescue PLB1 to try for myself.   I loved it.  It handled well – even in some pretty chilly water.  Full report up soon; but in this case, I consider smaller – very, very good.

Ocean Signal and Datrex recently introduced the world’s smallest Personal Locator Beacon, the rescueME PLB1.  Almost immediately, reviews of the product have been positive.  How could smaller not be better? The miniaturization of electronics has made lots of safety equipment easier to carry and use.  However, this particular product is making me think about the diminishing returns of “small.”

A press release from the company says this about the design, “the rescueME PLB1 has been carefully developed to fit onto any lifejacket and is easily activated by one hand in even the most challenging conditions.”

Friends – I’ve been out there in “the most challenging conditions” and I’m telling you – first hand – the word “easily” has no place being associated with any task; particularly removing a tiny box from a pocket, or reaching across an inflated life jacket, pulling out an antenna, and pushing a button.  There are any number of circumstances (cold being responsible for many of them) that might make using something this small all but impossible (or at least unreasonably frustrating.)

When considering whether smaller is better – think of the environment first.  If I was a hiker and it was summer I would think small would be beneficial. Space is at a premium in backpacks and lighter is always a good thing.   But, out to sea in the kind of conditions that have you overboard with nothing but your life jacket and it’s contents to rely on, ease of use (in that particular environment) is most important.  The rescueME is 30% smaller – but until they make these things small enough to be integral to the life jacket and water activated, I’m reasonably certain that handheld PLBs have gotten as small as I am comfortable with.

First of all, handheld PLBs need to fit in your (…wait for it..) hand.  For that matter, they need to fit in your cold and shaking hand. And even if they are mounted on your life jacket in a handy-dandy mounting bracket – you are really not going to perform a “single-handed activation” as the manufacturer suggests. Note in the video below that the single-handed activation is done with the device sitting firmly on a table. Unless you are planning to go overboard with the chart table, you’re going to end up using two-hands.

Another reason I liked the current “smallest” PLBs  (thank you ACR) is that they weren’t so small that I couldn’t add a swatch of Velcro to the back for quick mounting to the upper-shoulder of the life jacket. I don’t like using the mounting brackets these devices come with because permanently mounting something on your shoulder makes it very hard to see when you are in the water – and I want to see things work (verify that they are on.) Also, I am reasonable sure that I will need both hands to turn on electronic devices when I am in the water. I feel that way because for 15 years it was part of my job to get into the water and turn electronic devices on; EPIRBS, strobes, and radios are two-handed devices. trustME.

So 30% smaller? You are scaring me a little. I’ll wait until I get my hands on one and try it out (in the water – not on the chart table, thanks) – but for now I am going to pass on calling it “better.”

UPDATE: See above.

 

 

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  • glen friswell

    Hi Mario, read your blog on the rescueME PLB, totally
    agree about things possibly getting too small and fiddly. I can just see
    something in the dark at sea, scrabbling about in the bottom of a grab bag
    trying to find the beacon.

    COSPAS/ SARSAT prohibits the use of automatically
    activating 406 PLBs. They are worried about the amount of false alarms
    overwhelming the system, and I think they have a fair point.

    The rescueME PLB is particularly suited to being packed
    inside an inflatable lifejacket (PFD) and we have done exactly that with our
    AEROSAFE jacket which is aimed at private pilots. These chaps are fanatical
    about weight and size so this makes a really good pairing.

    We use a Velcro mounting system, backed up by a piece of
    cord so you can actually move the beacon around, activate it probably with 2
    hands and then put it back on the lifejacket at the highest point. We have also
    made it easier to deploy the antennae as it is a finger tip job to deploy the
    standard antennae and this is the first thing to go when it’s cold.

    If you want I can send you some pics.

    Anyway nice website.

    Regards

    Glen Friswell

    PS I have just “retired” from 9 years with UK RNLI (lifeboats)
    as operational crew, so tend to view things from a user’s point of view rather than
    from the warmth of a nice techy office.

  • Pete

    Interesting points made. However I would have thought actually handling a unit prior to critiquing it would have been of considerably more value. As I backpack hunt and kayak frequently, the size and weight of my kit is everything to me. With regard to finding the PLB in an emergency, a PLB should alway be kept on your person as being separated from one’s pack or kayak unexpectedly is always going to be a possibility. Lets face it, this is when a PLB is going to be needed most.

  • Pete

    PLBs are not primarily marine devices. EPIRBs are made to fit that roll.

  • http://mariovittone.com Mario

    Well Pete – Datrex thought I should try it as well and have been kind enough to send me a demo unit to test! I’ll be taking it in the water next week and give a full report. Thanks for the comments.

  • http://www.facebook.com/watersafety Mario Vittone

    Datrex thought I should try it out first as well and just sent me a demo unit to try out! I’ll be getting in the water with it next week and I’ll let you know how it goes.

  • Gulf Coast Ind. Marine Rep

    Great points regarding PLB size. PHI Helo in Lafayette, LA services the offshore drilling industry (as well as every other kind of helo rescue application), and is a customer of mine. Their pilots will use nothing but the ACR PLB-350B, 2882 AquaLink. This unit is the largest PLB that ACR offers (5.8″ x 2.3″ x 1.45″), and weighs 9.2 oz. They chose this unit for the very reasons that Mario pointed out in water conditions that will normally require a rescue. Most of the pilots at PHI describes the smaller units as ‘toys’.

  • NJB

    CAN WE HAVE YOUR FEEDBACK PLEASE?

  • Zerrielle

    And, after giving it a try?

  • http://mariovittone.com Mario

    Giving it a try in two weeks in Washington state. report to follow very soon after (with video)

  • http://korpijaakko.wordpress.com/ Jaakko Heikka

    Well, any first hand experience after trying the test unit?

  • Gulf Coast Ind. Marine Rep

    Au contrare….the USCG outfits every on-board personnel with a PLB.

  • Karen

    What a goof! Gives a scathing review and then never follows up once he actually sees the thing. Thanks buddy for your professionalism, not!

  • Bert

    Hi Mario, do you have an update to this?

  • karl gruber

    Small is good, particularily in PLBs. Mario makes illogical arguments and then disappears.

  • Commercial Fisherman

    A small PLB in your pocket is a lot better than a large PLB that’s on the boat you just fell overboard from.

    You should have an EPIRB for when you are intentionally ditching.

  • JM

    I’m wearing this PLB either on my PFD while doing long-distance high-wind windsurfing at open seas or I carry it in my pants pocket while going for alpine touring/freeride skiing in the mountains and I totally disagree with this review.

    Small is indeed better because it is way more easier to carry that small and light beacon in any pockets or to wear it on a life jacket than a large, heavy and bulky unit that will be a PITA to lug around.
    Obviously this review is focused on false claims and alluded to a theoretical situation that has nothing in common with that of a real life danger situation. When in a situation of a man over board, you do not want to hold your PLB with one hand while trying to stay warm with the H.E.L.P (heat escape lessening posture) while being immerged in water. You want your PLB to be fitted on the top of your life jacket so that the transmitting antenna is always facing the open sky and is above sea level. A smaller and lighter beacon just fits way nicer on top of your jacket than a heavier and bulkier beacon. All you need to do is to unwind the antenna, flip the lid and press on the distress button. This is easily done with even one numb hand when the device is worn in its neoprene floating pouch just over your shoulder.

    In sum, this is a neat emergency device to wear for the lonely outdoor adventurer in addition to a safety mirror, an emergency whistle, a strobe flashlight and a waterproof cell phone. Don’t go out without it.

  • JM

    …and delete my review based on true usage in distress situation.

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