SPOT On or Not

The great debate continues about SPOT Locators and products similar to them. SPOT stands for Satellite Positioning and Tracking and they provide a way to track someone or something using satellites. Especially popular for the wilderness adventurer these devices have raised quite a few issues over the years.

A standard SPOT locator allows you to transmit a couple of messages, one stating you are “ok”, another asking for “help” and the third activating “911”.    If you activate the “Help” button then whoever you have given access to your account or decided to send emails to will be notified. If you activate the “911” button then emergency service agencies will be activated.

The challenge with using these devices is there is no way to know what type of emergency is happening or if indeed it is a real emergency.  Some people consider being tired or hungry while hiking a mountain an emergency and put rescuers in danger for no reason. Sometimes buttons get accidentally hit and other times a device can malfunction as was the case with the camp across the river from us earlier this year.

The campers were out canoeing when a thunderstorm rolled in. They got to shore to wait it out and sometime during this storm lightning interfered with the transmission and caused their locator to activate 911. They remained where they were to wait out the storm and rescuers believed it was a true emergency. When the locator started moving again there was a bit of confusion but rescuers pursued them from the east, west and from above in the form of a beaver airplane.  They found the group and found out everything was “Ok” which was great news.

However, in this instance and in many other instances the lives of the volunteer rescuers were interrupted. These people were pulled away from their normal lives, possibly their work, family or sleep. They put themselves at risk by hiking, paddling, climbing or portaging rugged terrain in an effort to find the campers. As volunteers they get paid nothing for their time or effort. As for the resources used by the  USFS like the beaver that flew to find this group, the USFS does not have a way to “bill” for their services. So money that could be used for the forest is wasted on a non-emergency.

We send out SPOT Locators if groups want to rent them so this just as easily could have happened to us. Someone could easily make a mistake or choose to call something an emergency and the same thing would happen. These devices are terrific if they work but dead batteries, user error and misuse can make them a big headache too.

The stories of rescues are awesome and everyone involved is thankful for the devices that notified them. I just wonder how people who are sent out on non-essential rescues feel?

Is there something better than a SPOT out there? The camp has switched devices, some people praise satellite phones and others choose to use nothing. Is a false sense of security given when these devices are taken along on a wilderness trip? No gadget can take into consideration common sense so it’s really up to the user and whenever humans are involved there’s always room for error.

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