Use of smartphones, GPS devices, emergency locator devices, and other technological devices like it have led to a rise in backcountry rescues where the caller doesn’t truly need assistance, putting the lives of rescuers in jeopardy.
Search-and-rescue teams say that the rise of the use of these types of devices have folks sending out false alerts, as well as people who take a route they probably aren’t experienced enough to take, feeling that the device they are carrying protects them from any harm. There is a rise in people carrying PLBs, or personal locator beacons, out into the woods where with a press of a button, emergency is summoned giving the GPS coordinates of the person in distress. However, emergency crews have no way of knowing exactly why this distress signal is sent out.
Search and rescue coordinator for the California Emergency Management Agency, Matt Scharper, refers to these PLBs as “yuppie 911′s.” He said, “You send a message to a satellite and the government pulls your butt out of something you shouldn’t have been in in the first place.” Nick Parker, Alaskan wilderness rescue veteran of 45 years, agrees: “The real issue is one of training (or lack thereof), and our dependence on gizmos to save us. People expect a rescue in the same way they expect a fire engine or ambulance to come when they dial 911.”
Here’s an example: back in 2009, four hikers carrying a SPOT satellite tracking device while hiking in a remote part of the Grand Canyon pushed the help button. Rangers responded the next day by helicopter, finding the hikers did not need to be evacuated at all. Rather, they were fearful they would run short of water. They pushed the button again the next day, prompting another visit by helicopter, and all the men wanted was to complain that the water provided to them “tasted salty.” The third time they pushed the button, the rangers had had enough, loading them all onto the helicopter and removing them from the canyon, citing the leader of the group for creating a hazardous condition.
Although this is an extreme case, false alerts are happening a lot more often. In 2010, hikers in Grand Teton National Park asked for help down the mountain, with one of them requesting hot chocolate be flown in. In the US, hikers are sometimes charged for an unnecessary rescue. However, rescue teams try not to do this too often. According to Jeff Sparhawk, public information officer for the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group based in Boulder, CO said, “We don’t want people not to call for a rescue because they think they can’t afford it. Then they’re likely to get into deeper trouble and trigger a more dangerous rescue.”
Even Scharper knows that PLBs are useful despite the fact he calls them “yuppie 911′s.” “PLBs have saved a lot of lives, and as the technology develops, the problem will partly solve itself. Instead of a ’911 hangup’” – the distress signal attached to the person’s GPS coordinates – “we’ll be able to text back and forth. We’ll be able to talk a lost hiker back to safety without going out to get him, or putting any rescuers at risk.”
As an avid hiker, I can agree with these expert opinions. There are too many people reliant on these devices that can fail, rather than using their common sense: following trail markers, staying on the designated trail, or the worst scenario, being poorly prepared for weather conditions. Despite a hiker’s experience level, one should always prepare for a trip in unfamiliar territory: pack for any weather conditions, familiarize yourself with the trail ahead of time, carry a map along as backup, and do not hike terrain you aren’t comfortable with. Above all, have the common sense to realize that the need for hot chocolate is not one which requires search-and-rescue response.