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This Third Time Was Anything But Charming – SPOT Misuse At Grand Canyon National Park

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Grand Canyon

NPS photo.

Frivolous calls to 911 centers are a growing problem all across the country, but when the call comes from a remote location in Grand Canyon National Park, both the expense and risks of an emergency response increase dramatically. A group of hikers recently activated their SPOT device not once, not twice, but three times on the same trip.

We’ve previously explored the "good, the bad and the silly uses" of SPOT and similar emergency communication devices, and mentioned a program in Australia that loans personal locator beacons to backcountry uses at a national park. The latter story asked, "Are people more inclined to take unnecessary risks if they think help can be requested instantly with the push of a button?"

The recent case at Grand Canyon National Park confirms the answer to that question is sometimes "yes," and suggests the question wasn't quite broad enough. In some cases, availability of such devices can encourage people to attempt an outdoor trip that's beyond their abilities.

According to information from the park.

On the evening of September 23rd, rangers began a search for hikers who repeatedly activated their rented SPOT satellite tracking device. The GEOS Emergency Response Center in Houston reported that someone in the group of four hikers – two men and their two teenaged sons – had pressed the “help” button on their SPOT unit. The coordinates for the signal placed the group in a remote section of the park, most likely on the challenging Royal Arch loop.

Due to darkness and the remoteness of the location, rangers were unable to reach them via helicopter until the following morning. When found, they’d moved about a mile and a half to a water source. They declined rescue, as they’d activated the device due to their lack of water.

That last sentence is a key as the situation unfolded: the group "declined rescue." Unfortunately, this saga was just beginning.

Later that same evening, the same SPOT device was again activated, this time using the “911” button. Coordinates placed them less than a quarter mile from the spot where searchers had found them that morning. Once again, nightfall prevented a response by park helicopter, so an Arizona DPS helicopter whose crew utilized night vision goggles was brought in.

Most of tend to take the use of helicopters for rescues and other emergency services for granted. We see and read about such activity on a regular basis, and forget—or perhaps don't realize—that such flying, especially in mountain and canyon terrain, can be very hazardous. That's especially true of flying at night in rugged terrain. So, what was the group's problem this second time around? The state helicopter crew

found that the members of the group were concerned about possible dehydration because the water they’d found tasted salty, but no actual emergency existed. The helicopter crew declined their request for a night evacuation, but provided them with water before departing.

The saga wasn't over.

On the following morning, another SPOT “help” activation came in from the group. This time they were flown out by park helicopter. All four refused medical assessment or treatment.

Here's a key to the problem. Keep in mind this situation occurred in a remote, backcountry location in the canyon, not on one of the more heavily travelled trails.

The group’s leader had reportedly hiked once at the Grand Canyon; the other adult had no Grand Canyon and very little backpacking experience. When asked what they would have done without the SPOT device, the leader stated, “We would have never attempted this hike.”

Can devices such as SPOT save lives, time and money? If used properly, the answer is "yes," but abuse of the technology will likely be a growing challenge for search and rescue agencies.

The group leader was issued a citation for creating a hazardous condition, one of the few legal options available under current regulations.

Comments

The helicopter should have dropped them at the county jail to spend some time thinking about their decisions.

But seriously, the only solution I see for this is stiffer penalties (either civil fines or criminal charges) for frivolous summoning of emergency aide. That's easy to say, but it begs the question of who decides what's frivolous and what isn't? And it also will inevitably lead to someone not using a summons during a real emergency for fear of retribution and perishing as a result.


Deciding what's frivolous and what's not could have been as easy as "you called for emergency due to lack of water and have declined rescue...clearly you are neither physically nor mentally equipped for a backcountry trip so we are evacuating you whether you like it or not".

As has been discussed here before, I really think that the NPS needs to consider 1) rules and regs for back country access and 2) availability of SPOT devices.

Heck, the next group that has one might end up using it because someone's 5 year old is afraid of the dark!
In any case, back country rescue should be a cost borne by those who use the service, just like AAA.

Rap


Kirby Adams:
But seriously, the only solution I see for this is stiffer penalties (either civil fines or criminal charges) for frivolous summoning of emergency aide. That's easy to say, but it begs the question of who decides what's frivolous and what isn't? And it also will inevitably lead to someone not using a summons during a real emergency for fear of retribution and perishing as a result.

Usually that's for judges, magistrates, or juries to decide. Some of the larger national parks have their own magistrates.


These idiots should be arressted for felony stupid.


I'm surprised this didn"t make the national news - "4 previously thought to be extict dodos were discovered in the Grand Canyon!"


And just think - they're teaching their offspring how to handle all these "emergencies". Look for more don't-need-rescuing rescues in the future.


I've heard of various backcountry hikers (with cell phones) who were otherwise in good shape with plenty of food, water,and shelter but didn't want to continue because they were tired. The most entertaining quote when the NPS decided to send out someone on foot to check the state of these hikers was "Where's the helicopter?" as if they expected to be airlifted out just because they were tired.


I've worked as a river guide in Grand Canyon for over twenty years, and this example serves as a perfect illustration of the softening and sense of entitlement that's rampant in America nowadays across the board. We've seen it on river trips, and I'm sure the Rim rangers are pretty tired of it too. A very small percentage of the population has any connection with what wilderness really means, and devices like the SPOT beacons foster this lack of responsibility manyfold. Not to be mean-spirited, but these jackasses
needlessly risked the lives of rescuers several times, and should be thrown in jail and fined heavily. Their conduct borders on the unbelievable, but sadly is all too common. Anything else is an insult to the rescue community.


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