SPOT units are compact communication devices that can be used to summon help in event of an emergency in remote areas. SPOT can be a life-saving tool, but false alarms by inept users can also be a problem. Recent incidents in two parks illustrate the potential and the pitfalls of modern technology.
A previous article in the Traveler described the potential benefits of SPOT:
Officially dubbed a "Satellite GPS Messenger," this unit can be used to summon the authorities ASAP, track and store your movements, allow friends to follow you via Google Maps, and let those back home know that you could use a little assistance but that there's no emergency.
A good example of a beneficial use of SPOT occurred recently at Olympic National Park in Washington State. According to a park report,
On September 2nd, a 65-year-old man from Montesano, Washington, fell 20 feet while traversing above the Elwha Snowfinger on the Bailey Traverse. The man complained of head and back pain, so members of his party of three activated their emergency SPOT beacon.
The park had a light plane in the air doing wildfire reconnaissance at the time. It was diverted to the reported location and spotted the group of three on a steep hillside signaling for help.
Assistant Fire Management Officer Todd Rankin and ranger Mike Danisiewicz were flown close to the location by helicopter and Danisiewicz was able to scramble up the hillside to the injured man and begin an assessment. He determined that a hoist evacuation would be required due to the hazardous terrain and extent of the man’s injuries.
Whidbey Island Naval Air Station responded with a Blackhawk and flew the man to Seattle's Harbor View Hospital. He suffered no internal injuries, but required eight liters of fluid because of severe dehydration.
On the flip side of the SPOT ledger, a situation at Grand Canyon National Park confirms that some people don't understand what's required for a "911" response to a remote location. Ironically, the following incident occurred on the same day as the rescue at Olympic.
At 1:30 a.m. on the morning of September 2nd, the GEOS Emergency Response Center in Houston notified dispatch of a SPOT personal satellite tracker 911 activation that had been received from the park. The location coordinates placed the device along the Tanner Trail, approximately three miles from the trailhead.
An investigation revealed that the registered owner was associated with a backcountry permit holder who had extensive hiking experience in the park.
That "extensive hiking experience in the park" was important information, since it increased the probability that this call for help was the real deal. The park responded accordingly:
A trail response was begun at first light, just prior to the launch of the NPS helicopter with additional personnel.
Unfortunately, not everyone in the group had the extensive hiking experience of the person who obtained the backcountry permit, and that includes the person who sounded the alarm via SPOT.
A ranger arrived on scene to find three people asleep in their tents and in no need of assistance. One of the hikers, who was on her first hike into Grand Canyon, claimed to have become alarmed during the night when her group ran out of water and she subsequently heard “odd” respiratory noises emanating from the leader of the group as he slept.
At this point, the hiker decided that the group was in trouble [and] activated her SPOT messenger device.
It's a good thing those "odd respiratory noises" by the group leader didn't indicate a need for immediate help by that individual. After activating her "911" call via her SPOT unit, the inexperience hiker
...went back to sleep without making any contact with her hiking companions.
There are several potential lessons to be learned from this situation, but since my knowledge of the incident is limited to the park's brief report, I'll exercise discretion, and let you draw your own conclusions. The group's lack of water was a certainly a serious problem if they had tried to continue their hike…but not a reason to call out the cavalry.
Given their circumstance, the group made a good decision:
The group ultimately abandoned further plans for their hike and returned to the rim. The Tanner Trail is exposed, with little shade and no water for the entire nine miles of the hike to the Colorado River.
Following subsequent interviews with the involved hikers, the park decided not to take further action.
Whether devices like SPOT prove to be a boon or a bane for rescue personnel remains to be seen. The verdict is largely in the hands of the users.