The Good, The Bad and the Very Ugly SPOT

     The SPOT I am referring to is the one that uses satellite technology to determine the location of a person holding a Satellite GPS Messenger.  Introduced in August of 2007 this device allows users to communicate from almost anywhere in the world with a clear view to the sky.  Information is sent via a satellite signal so friends and family will know their loved one is OK wherever they are.   Their friends can even see where the user is and follow the path he or she has taken thanks to the online Tracker Program.

     SPOT locators allow people to go where they never would have gone if they didn’t have a SPOT.  Users can check in with their loved ones to let them know they are OK, they can send a personal message, they can ask their friends for help and can notify the proper authorities in case of a 9-1-1 Emergency.  The added assurance a SPOT locator provides gives the user and their friends and family a sense of security.

     Most folks remember the boy who broke the record for being the youngest person to circumnavigate the world in a sailboat on a solo trip this summer.  I’m not sure if it was the SPOT locator or the fact seventeen year-old Zac Sunderland has six younger siblings in his family that convinced his parents this solo adventure was a good idea. GPS locator or not I wouldn’t be sending my child away for thirteen months on the high seas but the Sunderlands must have been happy he had his SPOT along for the ride.

The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger™ became a critical communication tool when Zac lost all power to his radar while at sea off the coast of Granada. Days before, during 15-foot seas that snapped his spinnaker, he lost his satellite phone which he used almost daily to communicate with his parents. Worried from days of not hearing from Zac, his parents were finally relieved when an SMS text message came through on his mom’s cell phone “Hi Mom, it’s Zac. I’m OK.”

     While this type of communication is really nice when used properly it can also be abused.  And when it is abused who risks their lives to try to save someone else’s?  In the Superior National Forest the Forest Service doesn’t have a way of billing or charging folks who are rescued in the BWCAW or anywhere in the forest for that matter.  Hikers who become lost on a trail requiring hundreds of hours of personnel time and local resources are not charged a dime.   Why wouldn’t we as Boundary Waters Canoe Outfitters send a SPOT locator out with everyone?  Maybe this next blog entry will answer that question for you.

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.

     We’ve had very few problems of abuse of our satellite phones at Voyageur  Canoe Outfitters.  We’ve sent them out on trips for a number of years and up until recently they worked great. Now guests have difficulty finding a satellite signal and calls to the Globalstar Service Center say it’s because there are fewer satellites available in our area.  Is it a coincidence that the owner of SPOT is Globalstar and about the same time the satellite phones quit working was when the SPOT systems were introduced?  I’m not sure but my guess is there could possibly be a connection between the two.

      My main concern isn’t the guests of our business because they have common sense and are well-educated in the matter of emergency response in the wilderness.  The folks I worry about are the ones who press the emergency button that activates the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department and Ambulance.  Mike is currently the Fire Chief and we are both First Responders who are called upon to assist in Search and Rescue situations on the Gunflint Trail and in the surrounding wilderness areas.  Many of the business owners on the Gunflint Trail are also on the GTVFD.  Besides Voyageur the following businesses have one or more volunteers on the department; Way of the Wilderness, Gunflint Pines, Tuscarora, Heston’s, Gunflint Lodge, Wilderness Canoe Base, Bearskin Lodge, Golden Eagle and Hungry Jack Outfitters.  Things could get interesting when volunteers have to decide between taking care of their business or rescuing someone whose emergency may be forgetting to pack a camera.

     What is the answer?  What do you think?  I just wanted to let you all know about the good, the bad and the sometimes very ugly SPOT locator. Buy yours today!