Find Me, Spot. Staying Found in The National Parks

Spot is gaining more and more attention as a tool for backcountry travelers who find themselves in trouble.

Backcountry rangers in Katmai National Park and Preserve routinely signal their position with Spot, a personal locater beacon that can be used to summon help or to simply let friends know you're OK.

Recently, Spot helped rangers find two backcountry travelers in Sequoia National Park who found themselves in trouble. In both instances the hikers were in remote sections of the park along the John Muir/Pacific Crest Trail.

Spot
is an electronic hand-held device, about the size of a digital recorder, that communicates one-way text messages using satellite phone services. The device is capable of communicating an "OK" message, a "HELP" message, and a "911" (emergency) message and relay your location via Global Positioning System service. So in short, you can use these gizmos to summon help or program them to send a message back home while you're on, say, a paddling trip in Yellowstone National Park, to let your family or friends know everything is OK.

At Katmai, the transmitter is a cost-effective backcountry tool, although it can't always find a satellite link.

"We are making use of these devices to save valuable satellite phone time and cost," says Superintendent Ralph Moore. "Spot is proving to be reliable in several areas of the park and allows us to make multiple checks throughout the day as well as track precise field locations of field camps, staff locations, and patrol tracks.

"These in combination with the radios (and associated recent fixes to coastal coverage) are providing reliable communications with our field staff," he adds.

In Sequoia, the first incident in which Spot was put into action involved a man who fell into Woods Creek and was swept downstream. He was briefly pinned in a "strainer" before freeing himself and climbing onto a submerged ledge on the far side of the river. He was unable to climb off of the ledge.

One of his companions activated Spot's 911 feature. While awaiting help, the man’s companions were able to ford the river and assist their friend off of the ledge. Once the man was safely out of the river, the group tried to deactivate the 911 activation and pressed the OK button several times. The "O" messages were transmitted, but no 911 deactivation was received.

In the meantime, rangers responded and located the party. It wasn't the fastest response, though, and not just because of the group's location. After Spot was activated the alert originally went to the California Highway Patrol, then to the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office and finally to Sequoia park dispatch. About two hours elapsed from the 911 activation to notification of park dispatch.

The second incident at Sequoia involved a man camped at Sapphire Lake. The man experienced sudden onset abdominal pain and activated his Spot device. A wilderness ranger responded by foot at first light and evaluated the patient. The man was in severe distress and was evacuated by helicopter. He was admitted to the hospital, where he received emergency abdominal surgery. The 911 activation was received directly by Sequoia park dispatch and took about 45 minutes.

Park officials say several lessons have been learned from these incidents:

* The Spot website is very helpful in gaining an understanding of these devices and includes demonstrations of their various features.

* The 911 activation is received by a contractor in Houston, Texas, by way of a satellite relay in Australia. The Houston contractor, an international dispatch center, receives the notification and forwards it on to the subscriber’s emergency contacts as well as the agency responsible for the particular geographic location.

* Coordinates from the dispatch center are given in latitude/longitude in decimal degrees using NAD 83/ WGS 84. The coordinates have been very accurate.

* Rangers/emergency responders have no way of knowing what type of emergency service the Spot device user is requesting.

So, against that background, should everyone who heads into the backcountry of a national park carry Spot? That's an intriguing question. It might have helped that Salt Lake City couple lost in the Grand Canyon National Park back in May, and it might also have aided two young women who went the wrong way in Denali National Park and were missing for five days. Whether it could have helped a Maryland woman who died in a fall in North Cascades National Park late last month is hard to say because of the woman's injuries.

Opinions from the experts over the value of personal locater beacons such as Spot are mixed, as I noted earlier this year. As the experts pointed out, some folks might become over-reliant on such devices and quickly find themselves in situations they're not prepared to handle. Others might resort to sending out a "help me" signal before they really need help.

Still, with park rangers beginning to use these devices to check in, and with two rescues in Sequoia made possible because of Spot, such a device might be one more prudent piece of equipment in your pack. Of course, just as important is a good GPS unit and, probably more important, a working compass and appropriate topo map and the skills to use them.

Editor's note: Please let us know of your experiences with Spot or any of the other PLBs out on the market. Are they worthwhile or a waste of money?

Comments

Spot is a step in a good direction. It combines several independent, pre-existing services, to make a useful new service.

The unit-cost is $169.99, which is certainly ball-park or better for devices in this genre.

The base service-fee is $99.99/yr, likewise a realistic outlay for normal people. The Google Map/tracker option is $49.99, which could be a nice 3rd-party gift.

As a 'peace of mind' status-tracker, it sounds good, and cost-effective. As a way of recording information as you proceed on your adventure (update your website?) this isn't it. Yet.

A great invention.

I certainly think this "always connected" technology brings advantages to the individual, and can be helpful to emergency responders. I typically carry ham radio equipment into the California, Oregon, and Nevada wilderness areas I visit for some of the same reasons. As a reliable device specifically designed to signal for emergency help, there's evidence that the SPOT system is not as reliable and effective as a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). (We discussed ways to call for help from the wilderness in The WildeBeat edition 122, titled Calling for Help Revisited.)

But collectively, as a society, I'm wondering if making easier for people to call for help from the backcountry causes us to lose as much or more than we gain.

Reading your article reminds me of an exchange I had in an interview with Ranger Laurel Boyers, who was the manager of Yosemite's wilderness for 11 years, and worked in the Yosemite wilderness for over 30 years. Here's a bit of the transcript of that interview:

STEVE: And that brings us to some of the latest of devices, like the personal locator beacons that sort of give you an instant nine one one back there.

LAUREL BOYERS: Which I think is really sad. I think that takes much of the wildness out of it. And I'm very sorry for that... When you talk to peple about -- you ask somebody to tell you their best wilderness experience, what was the coolest trip you ever took, invariably, they'll tell you a story of surviving something. Of something that really stretched them out, that really tested their mettle, you know, tested who they were, and made them really proud and got the endorphins going, and got them all pumped up. It's not the time that you look down at your thing and said, you know, "come get me, I just twisted my ankle", or whatever. It's, "I toughed it out and I made it off the hill and I had to drag myself on my injured ankle," ...or, "it poured and I had this horrendous creek crossing." Or, you know, whatever is was, it was something that really tested them, and that is so key to why wilderness is important to our heart and soul and spirit, because it provides a place where we're really more at one with nature... Now we're living in boxes, we drive around in boxes, we stay in boxes, we're very insulated from the natural world. And the more we use technology to insulate ourselves while we're out there, the more we loose in my opinion.

Ranger Boyers appeared in a number of editions of The WildeBeat, including Keeping Bears Hungry, Ranger Changes, Thanks Ranger Boyers!, Ticket to Half Dome, and Calling for Help Revisited.

Here's the core question: Are you having a wilderness experience if you can rescued from it at your first inconvenience?
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Like all new technology it will take a while for the general public to learn to use these devices and where they can be used effectively. I doubt the Utah couple would have had much success with one in the Grand Canyon as PLB's don't seem to work there. The recent rescues in Sequoia are what these items where made for. Those that "go it alone" usually would prefer to stay out of touch, but family members sleep better knowing they\we have some means of communication to the outside world. A man died in the Wind River area of Wyoming because a boulder rolled on to his leg and was way to big for him to move it. According to the article it did not sould like he did anything dumb, just bad luck. If he had one of these he might still be treking today, but unfortunately, he was not found for a year. Regardless of the person(s) training, occassionaly they will get activated unneccessarily, but when they do and it is needed, the SAR folks will have a good set of coordinates to where to begin looking, money and lives will be saved. Events on Ranier and Hood these pat few years come to mind as places that experienced groups needed to be saved and the SAR teams involved needed all the advantages they could get.

the problem is not the existance of the device but rather the publics preception as to what a emergency is. This is a great tool and will save many lives. I plan on taking a 3 month road trip to alaska in the future with numerous long hikes and kayak trips along the way, being that I am traveling solo, I am planing on bringing this along to tell others where I am, and have a way to call for help if the situation should exceed my capability.

Promise you, if you were in a hiking group with Ranger Boyers and the situation reached a point where he was faced with the choice of activating the beacon, or death, he would fire that peice of technology right up. Hes right though, these beacons should not be used for twisted ankles and minor broken bones, but there is a time and a place for them. Education is the key not disdain of the device.