A new device known as a SPOT Satellite Messenger, which essentially sends out a call for help, is growing in popularity with those who play in the outdoors, but the devices are less popular with those who are charged with rescuing the people who activate the SPOT.
Called the yuppie 911, by some, the mantenna, by others, the SPOT device fits in the palm of your hand and can send out a distress call via satellite at the push of a button. The SPOT also has a tracking function that allows a family member sitting at home to track the progress of their loved one as they hike or bike through the outdoors.
Rescuers note a few problems with the devices. First there is a concern that the ease of calling for help with a SPOT device will lead to false calls, essentially crying wolf via high technology. This has already happened statewide and locally. Matt Scharper with the California Office of Emergency Services reports that since June of 2008, there have been 25 SPOT activations in California. Of those 25, 6 were accidental, and 3 could have self-rescued, Scharper says.
In Mono County, Pete DeGeorge with the Mono Sheriffs Department reports that the SAR team responded to three SPOT activations in Mono County in 2009. Only one SPOT activation for hikers stranded near Convict Lake was a legitimate call. Inyo County has seen false calls along with people in real distress. Inyo Sheriff SAR Coordinator Terry Waterbury reports that there was a case of a woman backpacking near Ash Meadows who pressed the 911 function as a snow storm moved in at night, but then hiked out on her own the next morning. Waterbury recalled another SPOT activation in the same area that also resulted in a self-rescue after the man pressed the button. There has been at least one legit SPOT activation in Inyo County, a youth with severe altitude sickness was flown out of the back-country by helicopter after a SPOT activation.
When a person pushes the 911 button, the call is routed to the local agency responsible for rescue but there is also a help function that is designed to notify friends and family that the user needs assistance but does not need an official Search and Rescue response. The problem that SAR officials see with this function is that when a person presses the help button, the family and friends just end up calling SAR anyway, rather than trying to deal with the situation themselves.
Limited communication is another problem with the devices. When a person presses 911 or help the rescuer who receives the message has no idea what is wrong. Is there a medical emergency? Does the victim simply have car trouble? There are no details beyond the fact that there is a problem and a location of the victim.
Despite the limitations of the SPOT device, SAR officials see the devices as useful as long as they are used properly. Matt Scharper says that the company that manufactures the SPOT should do a better job of educating their customers. Pushing the 911 button does not guarantee that a helicopter will come to pick up the user. This is not a taxi device, he says.
With more and more outdoor recreationalists using the SPOT – from hikers to hunters to off highway vehicle users – SAR officials expect to see more calls from the SPOT in the future.