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?