You are here

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

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.


 I was recently told of this by a person who's on her second month long trip thru the G.C.  As far as I know, this group has ONE sat phone, period, no SPOT devices as they all belong to the cult of "let's pretend we're really alone in the wilderness".  They probably won't even use their sat phone unlesss they have an emergency (thus, they're more out of touch than almost any of our military in Afghanistan, for instance).  To me, this is ALMOST as irresponsible as overuse of SPOT devices (almost in that they're unlikely to call (or be able to call if their sat phone goes for a swim), for unnecessary rescues and are only exposing themselves to unnecessary risk, mental and physical (what if a loved one dies or falls seriously ill while they're out having fun?  They apparently  have made a decision not to care).  I think all of this group have serious hiking experience, but 3 have no river experience.  Since this group will be separated thru technical canyoneering and hiking, I've probably underestimated the level of idiocy of having only one communication device. 
As has been said above, this is not a new problem, and it's only being exacerbated by the new technology.  Fortunately, new technology will also help to alleviate the problem; SPOT Connect seems to be a step in this direction and sat phones (though out of reach for many due to their price) alleviate it pretty much entirely by allowing two-way communication.  Perhaps NPS employees should be given the option of REQUIRING people they think are inexperienced to RENT sat phones before being issued their permits (think of it as an ignorance tax).  That way at least responsible parties can evaluate whether their "emergency" is truly that and can make informed decisions as to whether rescuers should thus be put at risk.  I totally agree that frivilous calls for help should be met with forced evac and serious fines etc.

Unnecessary calls for rescues are not a new thing by any means. The advances of technology have simply made them more frequent. I don't think that anyone in the SAR community has any issue with providing emergency response in a true emergency, even though true, life and death emergencies are many times caused by inexperience, lack of proper equipment and poor judgement.

The backcountry permiting process at the Grand Canyon contains the most comprehensive "Preventative SAR" program I am aware of in the country. Permitees are provided with information about the difficulty and hazards of the trips they are proposing to take. They are given suggestions for mitigation of these hazards. The staff can be, and often are, very blunt with folks that they feel are biting off more than they can chew. However, in this country, we have the right to bite off more than we can chew, and go off into the wilderness unprepared. And permitting staff do not have the authority to not issue the permit because they subjectively feel you are unable to do the trip. People venture off under prepared everyday, and many return home safely, not because of their abilities but by the grace of God (or whatever force you believe in), but simply because they did not make enought mistakes to get into trouble.

Some process should be established to pay for unncessary SAR missions such as these. Not sure if that could be added as a part of the permitting process, of if it would have to done through a court process. The suggestion of "SAR Insurance" is interesting, but along with the new technology would lead, I think, to more unecessary SAR calls as people would just say "Hey, I've got insurance".

Another idea that was bounced around back in the early '80's was developing, in some wilderness and WSA's a no rescue policy. What better way to get a true feeling of wilderness.

The range and depth of knowledge and the articulate points in this thread speak to the qualifications of all those who have commented so far. As for me, I lack back-country experience and have managed to avoid camping. My one qualification to contribute a comment to this thread is that I was recently evacuated from the Grand Canyon by a Parks and Recreation helicopter crew. I am a "touron".

At a minimum, those who benefit most directly from the Search and Rescue services should pay for them. That payment should include 1) the cost of the actual rescue or "transport" (as in our case) and 2) a slice of the over-head to keep the teams "in the barn".

From there, it is reasonable to add a fine. Point is, those who benefit the most should pay the bill. It's not a perfect way to keep everyone honest, but it is the first step.

Fact is, my traveling partner and I should never have been on the river. Our one good decision was to be part of a larger group, organized and led by highly experienced and professional boatsman. It was they who organized the evacuation, after assessing our abilities over several days.

I also want to note that the Search and Rescue team was exceptional. They combined high levels of competency, professionalism and courtesy. I live in the corporate world and have never seen a team work better.

"tourons (a combination of tourist and morons)"

Thanks for a new word! :)

Don't throw them in jail-- they don't deserve the free* food, water, and shelter.
Do fine them for Abuse of Emergency Services.

SPOT-2 is a very useful one way communication tool, in the hands of backcountry experience. Can't add much more to this thread other than the only way to curve the "infantile" and utter "miss use" of the 911 button is VERY strict the cost of the search + $2,000 for being simply dumb. As a commercial outfitter for 25 years I see "dumb" all the time even with out SPOT.

This didn't happen to be a church leader from Stow, OH., did it? A certain preacher took a group of parishoners to Alaska for a wilderness backpack trip,not once but twice. Had to be rescued both times. Amongst this knuckleheads' fantastic leadership skills were; He was the only one with reasonable gear. Many people in his group had cotton clothing. many wore tennis shoes. He refused to turn back when other adult chaperones voiced their concerns. Upon rescue (the 2nd trip),it was noted by the SAR teams, that there were puddles of orange urine, a sign of extreme dehydration. The rescue came because the adults (who had no mountaineering experience) mutineed and used a cell phone.

Kind of sounds like his handy-work.

We have, and are grateful for, a SPOT device and it's services. Several times every year we are high in the Sierra's with NO cell phone service within miles. We have used our SPOT to notify our designated contacts we have safely arrived and send them our co-ordinates should we not arrive home as scheduled. We have never needed, and hope never to need, to use the device for any emergency call. We ALWAYS go out well prepared for any weather and any unforeseen difficulties, situations, and/or delays, and have much back-country experience. As we are getting older, we are careful not to exceed our abilities. That said, I must say that the SPOT has allowed us to feel not just safer, but ABLE to go up in the dead of winter, in many feet of snow. Smart thinking? Probably not, but we have safely made many such trips, and are looking forward to many wonderful more. From what I've read, I am certain we are not the only ones unable to resist pushing the boundaries just a bit, but we try to do it responsibly.
I do believe that devices like SPOT are very good things in the hands of responsible people. I do NOT believe they can or should replace experience and good judgment. I also believe people should be heavily fined for non-emergency calls, not just with SPOT, but any emergency signaling device! AND people should be educated well enough to know that an emergency is something seriously life-threatening, not something making you frightened or uncomfortable!

Hey, Calif S&R has a good point - the makers of the SPOT devices make such a guarantee of safety and reap the profits but assume none of the risks of misuse. I don't think it's a simple question of caveat emptor, either. Too bad they don't sell it with a "misuse indemnity insurance" kind of thing, or have some kind of service like On-Star does, to ask "what's the nature of your emergency"? Seems to me it would minimize costs not to mention risks for rescuers. If it can be done for the folks who've "fallen and can't get up", why couldn't it be done for a SPOT device?

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments