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.