You Are Being Watched? SPOT Satellite Messaging and Its Consequences

HELP!It’s late fall in the Wasatch Mountains and you decide to sneak in one last epic alpine run before the snow gods transform the peaks into a winter sports paradise. After a lazy morning you set out from Brighton around 10 a.m. and head up Catherine’s Pass. Miles and hours disappear as the effort of massive climbs, exhilaration of reckless descents, and the beauty of your surroundings melt everything else away. Your joy grows as you start to feel snow flakes lightly stink your cheeks. Then, in late afternoon as you bomb down the Plunge, it happens in instant that feels like an eternity. A rock under foot slips. Your toe catches on another rock. Your body pivots and accelerates toward the rocky ground that rests 25% below horizontal. You hear the snap as your femur breaks. You try to stand in the now inch deep snow, but with the storm growing and the sun continuing its relentless approach towards the peaks to your west, you can’t. You think in quick succession, “I should have brought a jacket” and, then, as you start to shiver, “Is this the end?”

Mere moments later you remember that you packed your SPOT Satellite Messenger! You press a button on this 7 ounce wonder and the unit sends an email message containing your location via satellite to an emergency control center. Help is on the way! Or is it?

You see, in less than a year since the SPOT’s introduction there has been enough indiscriminate SPOT calls that emergency responders in National Parks and other wild area are having to develop protocols as to whether and with what level of resources they should respond to SPOT’s two levels of distress calls – Call 911 and Ask For Help – and that’s with only 50,000 SPOT service subscribers worldwide.

One possible example of SPOT overuse would be an experienced hiker being helicoptered out of the Canadian Rockies after using SPOT when he ruptured a patella tendon only 10k from a road while in a familiar area. The below image shows the hiker smiling in front of helicopter.

airlift SPOT satellite messenger
Now we’re not trying to pick on the poor hiker, it surely sucks to blow out a tendon 6+ miles from a lift. Heck, we’d probably have pushed one of the distress buttons on the SPOT satellite messenger, too! However, a close examination of the picture also shows a major problem with having a satellite messaging system in the back country… and that’s that it’s so tempting to use! In this example, the guy was an experienced hiker with a large pack and a sleeping mat, which likely means a tent and a sleeping bag, as well. Given that the hiker’s injury did not threaten his long-term health or life, there’s no reason that he needed to be flown out. One former back country emergency coordinator provides a possible explanation for such unnecessary call as “Most people feel that their situation is much more emergent that it is.”

Of course, one perverse consequence of satellite messengers is that they could actually increase the number of true emergency situations, even if only by a small number. How? By giving individuals, experienced or not, a false sense of confidence. It’s quite easy to imagine individuals would take on grander adventures, take more risks on their adventures, or limit their self-reliance capabilities (by carrying less gear or being less educated) if they have the security of a satellite messenger. Those very same individuals may not realize that emergency assistance may still be many hours or even days away.

You ask, “So what’s the problem here?” Well, our beef’s not the money, if that’s what you’re thinking. Sure, back county rescues cost money, but that’s why we have such personnel and devote such resources. Instead, it’s the risk such calls place on other individuals. First and foremost, emergency personnel face risks in responding to any distress call. In good conditions, these risks might only be extremely low risks, such as a car crash in responding, or the risk of a negligible injury, such as a sprained ankle suffered while hiking to a person in distress. On the other hand, in bad conditions a SPOT call may result in rescuers flying in blizzards, crossing raging rivers, or making risky decisions in an effort to respond to what they must assume to be a life threatening condition. In addition, any distress call may result in another emergency situation receiving fewer resources or a delayed response. That, in turn, may put the health or lives of other distressed individuals at greater risk.

All that said, if we had children, spouses, or parents that we needed to provide for, we might be signing a different tune. Without a doubt, the SPOT satellite messenger is an innovative outdoor emergency device (it won the 2008 Wall Street Journal Technology Innovation Award for Consumer Electronics) and would be of great use in a true wilderness emergency. We just hope that users are responsible in their use of the SPOT and consider the resources that will be expended and the risks that will be expended in extracting them from any “distress” situation.

More Information

For more information on the SPOT satellite messenger (which is light, rugged, floats, and doesn’t need a cell signal, in case you were wondering) check out:

You can currently pick the SPOT up at Amazon.com for $128… or only $78 after the mail in rebate if you purchase the SPOT before the end of 2008. Two AA batteries and the service fee ($99/year) are not included.

Questions

  • What do you think of SPOT and the future of emergency satellite tracking?
  • Does it represent an unfair appropriation of emergency resources by the few who purchase such devices?
  • On the other hand, is it irresponsible for a parent (or anyone, for the matter) to go out into the wilderness without some such devise? (After all, resources are also spent on post mortem searches.)
  • Have you or a loved one used a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon in an emergency?
  • Do you prefer to experience your trail runs with the extremely small risk of death in a remote area?

Tell us all where you’re at on the issue satellite messengers!

There are 9 comments

  1. Grae Van Hooser

    I suppose this type of event will increase as more and more companies come out with Satellite messenger services. It seems like it would be a good idea to develope some type of permit needed to buy one. Perhaps a permit that requires the purchaser to have a first aid certification & CPR card? Back country survival class attendence? I can definately see, like everything else, an avenue developing for potential abuse. At least until the day comes when there are rapid developements in satellite phone tech. But I don't think the cell phone companies are going to let that happen anytime soon. Makes you wonder why the satalitte phone has not changed much in the years it has been available to the public.

  2. BGill

    I think the pros definitely outweigh the cons on this one. There is no doubt the SPOT is an invaluable tool to someone who is in a life-threatening situation. It seems to me that it would benefit rescue crews to know what type of emergency they're responding to, that way they can properly allocate resources that match the emergency. Perhaps the SPOT would benefit from a keypad that would allow the user, if physically possible, to send a short message like "broken femur, can't move" or "omg this hike was like 2 hard 2 finish lolz".

  3. Trail Goat

    Grae,Interesting ideas about regarding requiring some sort of certification or training prior to using SPOT. However, as the picture in included indicates, even experienced outdoorsman may use it unnecessarily. You comment also reminds me that I forgot to mention how these devices can give a false sense of confidence to those unready for exploration.Gill,I tend to agree that the SPOT satellite messenger and whatever devices that will likely follow it are beneficial, all things considered. You are not alone in thinking that the ability to include a short text message would greatly enhance the utility and minimizes the over responses associated with satellite messaging. An former wilderness emergency responder made a similar suggestion as I was discussing this yet to be published post. Hopefully, such advances are not that far off. Of course, even with a text entry option, there should be a one button emergency system… just in case.

  4. BGill

    Exactly. If the user sends a short message, wonderful, but if the emergency comes with no message attached they can assume the user was only capable of hitting one button and it's a life-threatening scenario, like how they currently treat every call.

  5. Will Thomas

    I currently own a SPOT messenger and use it on most of my outdoor activities. My main reason for having it is not for emergency assistance but to ease my wife's nerves while I'm out on these adventures & to let friends and family follow me on my adventures. My main use of SPOT is the tracking feature ($49.99/year). Every 10 minutes it will update my live location on a google map for my wife/others to see.As far as using it as emergency bailout, I think every user needs to stop and ask themselves the question, "Would I do this (activity) if I did not have SPOT on me?". You can't force people to think this way, but if everyone did, I don't think the emergency services would get abused. There was a comment about needing a permit or certification before buying, but this doesn't work with the diverse ways SPOT is being used. Example, lots of truck drivers & travelers use it so their families know where they are at on the road. They shouldn't be required to have CPR certification to use their SPOT.I do agree with the comment about adding texting abilities to SPOT and I'm sure that will be available in future models. The other feature that would be handy is message confirmation. Right now SPOT is set up as a one way device. You transmit data, but you can't receive any data. In the thick forest canopy of the Cascades, most of my signals never reach my wife. If I'm the one that broke my femur on an alpine run and am laying in the inch deep snow. I would like to know if my 911 signal is actually being received.There was mention of "SPOT's two level of distress signals – Call 911 and Ask for Help". I think it is important to note the difference in these two signals.Only the "Call 911" signal goes to emergency dispatchers. Once activated it will send your gps location to emergency dispatchers every 5 minutes until the SPOT user deactivates the signal. This is helpful if you are still on the move during your emergency.The "Ask for Help" signal can be pre programmed by the SPOT user before his activity with a specific message he chooses. He can then add email addresses & cell phone numbers he would like his "Ask for Help" message delivered to if he chooses to activate this signal. If he activates it, then those on his list will get his message via email & text message. It will also give a gps location and link to a google map with that location. It continues to send out these emails & text messages every 10 minutes with your new location.Sounds like this feature might have best been used for our "ruptured tendon" example. His buddies probably could have reached him just as fast as search & rescue being only 6 miles away. With that smile on his face it appears he was looking for his 15 minutes of Shame.Answers to some of your questions:I think the future is bright for such devices. We are starting to see the big adventure races incorporating SPOT, which adds to the spectators experience and adds add'l safety to the sport. I don't think we'll see this incorporated into 100 mile ultras anytime soon though. I feel as the technology develops in future similar equipment it will make the communication easier to avoid un-necessary 911 calls. Think of it as a step down from a satellite phone w/ add'l tracking features.I haven't had to use my SPOT 911 signal yet, and I pray that I won't, but I can't say I haven't been tempted to use the "Ask for Help" feature LOL: <a href="http://willandjenni.blogspot.com/2008/09/pacific-crest-trail-hike-recap_24.htmlhttp://willandjenni.blogspot.com/2008/09/pacific-… />And finally, yes I do prefer to run trails in remote areas where cell phone signals are just as remote. That's my reason for trail running vs. doing speed work around the local track or joining 25,000 runners through a downtown marathon course.

  6. Meghan

    Hi Bryon!There is also something to be said for the fact that SPOT is yet another device that takes the wild out of wilderness. Why, in fact, immerse oneself in the wilderness if one doesn't wish to take on the elements of that environment? There are many facets to this idea, though, that can't be commented on in a short blog comment, so I'll just stop there… :)Happy Halloween!Meghan

  7. Anonymous

    I think they are overselling the "we'll save your life" part. It's a fun little tracker for casual use but for life threatening situations, carry a PLB or rent a satphone. I tried a Guardian Sentinel out a few years ago, which is the same thing, and only half the transmissions made it through when in the bush. I wonder how many distress calls never made it with SPOT so far? You can bet THOSE don't get publicized. And maybe they wouldn't like to see a post even suggest it, so I'll post this anonymously. When someone comes out with a 2-way unit so you can say what the problem is, then rescuers will know whether they need to send a helicopter or just head up there on horseback (like they could have done with the guy in the picture). That's why phones work, you can exchange information.

  8. John

    I was given a SPOT for Xmas, but have decided not to activate it because I believe that these devices will eventually overburden search and rescue while detracting from the wildeness experience. My background: 40+ years of wilderness trips. I have personally been on the scene of a backcountry avalance fatality and was on a river trip where a timely satellite phone call likely saved the life of a dehydrated person who was having a medication reaction. I have been on technical climbs where a fallen climber had to be taken to the hospital. So I know emergencies.The device already sends GPS coordinates and the unit's ID number. One additional byte of transmission would have allowed sending a code for the severity and urgency of the alert. A cardiac arrest justifies a helicopter immediately, a sprained ankle or car that won't start at the trailhead does not. A simple "send help" does not make the distinction. This was a serious design flaw with the current units.

  9. Trail Goat

    Meghan,Immersion oneself in the elements is silly. You could get hurt or worse! I am opposed to this entirely.John,Thanks for the person insight into backcountry situations. Too many,I hope that SPOT takes this concept just one teensy bit forward, includes a few more bits and allows for either two-way communication or a little more info.

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