The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the rescue system, plans to announce the new program Wednesday. The "personal locator beacons" will be available to the public starting July 1 and will cost $300 or more.
"We're going to see a lot of usage among those who spend a lot of time in the outdoors, who go into really remote places where cell phones just don't work," said Lt. Daniel Karlson, a NOAA spokesman.
Karlson said outdoor outfitters will sell or rent the beacons. People taking long car trips would be better off with cell phones, he said, but they also could carry beacons in case emergencies occur where phones don't work.
The beacon sends an electronic SOS to satellites, which relay the distress call through an NOAA control center in Suitland, Md., outside Washington. NOAA then contacts local rescuers.
Australia, Canada, Russia and several European countries already allow broad use of personal beacons.
Use of the beacons in the United States has been limited to planes and ships because the agencies involved weren't ready to coordinate a nationwide rescue system on land, Karlson said. The few exceptions included personal beacons used by Forest Service rangers and in the escape kits of NASA astronauts.
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission approved the use of personal beacons on land. The agency said the devices will make rescuers' jobs easier, saving lives, time and money.
A test program in Alaska, which has allowed the use of personal beacons since 1994, has resulted in hundreds of rescues.
"It takes the search out of search and rescue," said Randy Crosby, who directs rescue teams in Barrow, Alaska's northernmost city.
In its 20 years of operation, the satellite rescue system has helped save close to 14,000 people worldwide, including about 4,300 in the United States.
One was Mike Ryan, 46, a stunt driver from Los Angeles. In 1985, the small plane he was flying crashed, leaving him with crushed feet and ankles in a remote area of New Mexico.
The crash set off his plane's beacon, and rescue crews found him 17 hours later. He said it was just in time: "I had enough blood for maybe another hour."
The satellite rescue system was born in 1972 after a plane carrying two congressmen crashed in a remote part of Alaska. A massive, 39-day search found no trace of House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, D-La., or Rep. Nick Begich, D-Alaska.
Congress responded by requiring every U.S. aircraft to carry a transmitter that would broadcast a homing signal after a crash.
Ultimately, the United States, Canada, France and the Soviet Union created the satellite rescue system. The operation now involves 32 countries with ground stations around the world.
In Alaska last year, 54 people were rescued after using personal beacons. Many rescues in the state involve stranded snowmobilers.
"They're out in the middle of nowhere," Karlson said. "They fire off their beacon because they know they've got a three-day walk and its 35-below out and they'd be dead in three hours."
A low rate of false alarms in the Alaska program is one reason the service can be extended nationwide, Karlson said.
There are no penalties for accidental false alarms, but people who deliberately misuse the devices can be fined $250,000, imprisoned for six years and made to pay rescue costs, Karlson said.
He said the government works to educate beacon owners so "someone doesn't go out there and stub their toe and trip this thing off."
"We want this as a last resort," he said.
The personal beacons send out two signals, one to alert satellites that can determine a location within a couple of miles and a weaker homing signal to guide rescuers to a precise spot. Some models use global positioning technology to broadcast an even more accurate location.
Each beacon must be registered, to let rescuers know who is in trouble and how to contact friends or relatives. Companies that rent beacons must have their customer information available for authorities.
By David Ho
By David Ho