Why would you want to communicate with someone back in the civilized world if you are out enjoying god’s country in all its natural beauty? Well, sometimes Mother Nature can wreak her havoc and you wind up in a situation where you need to call—or yell—for help.
There are plenty of reasons to stay connected with the folks back home should you choose to bug out or in the event of an emergency, and they all play into your choice of backcountry communication device or devices. To get the 411 on these devices, we talked to Mikele D’Arcangelo, Marketing Director at ACR Electronics.
Make sure you know which kind of communication you’ll be using, because it very well could save your life.
THE BIG THREE
D’Arcangelo explained that there are three main categories of emergency communication devices, ranging from simple to complicated:
Personal Locator Beacons (PLB): Simple radios that send an emergency message with your location to a satellite that relays it to emergency personnel.
Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SEND): More sophisticated devices can send your emergency message and location information to emergency personnel but can also send text messages to contacts you have set up in advance.
Satellite Phones: The most sophisticated technology as it includes the voice communication capability you expect with a phone but also allows you to send text or email messages in some cases.
PERSONAL LOCATOR BEACONS (PLB)
The simplest of the three categories, D’Arcangelo reports, is PLBs: manually activated radio transmitters that send out two different signals that serve two different purposes.
The first is the 406 MHz signal that goes to the LEOSAR and GEOSAR satellite constellations of the international COSPAR/SARSAT rescue organization to tell emergency personnel that you are in trouble and where you are located. This is one of the features of PLBs that make it the most robust of the three categories. Since the signal goes to two different satellite constellations, they have two ways of determining where you are; if your PLB doesn’t have a built-in GPS or if it can’t get a lock on the GPS satellites, the two constellations can still determine your location using the Doppler shift. This is a capability that the SEND device and the satellite phone technologies cannot do.
An emergency message from any of the devices covered here follows the same path whether it is sent to the government-run SARSAT system from a PLB or to the commercially run GEOS system from a SEND device or a satellite phone. Every message goes from:
• Your signaling device (with or without your GPS location), to a
• SAR satellite system that relays your personal ID to a
• Local User Terminal (LUT), which pulls up your personal information and any information about your party and trip plans and sends it to
• Mission Control Center (MCC), which then forwards it to the
• Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) who will locate the nearest emergency or SAR resources, which then come to your location.
The second signal is a 121.5 MHz homing beacon that emergency personnel can use to pinpoint your location. This is also a feature that the SEND and sat phone technology does not offer.
Since a PLB is designed to use as a last resort, it utilizes a stronger signal than the other two categories. As a result, it can punch through obstacles like heavy cloud cover and trees that might block the signal from SEND devices or satellite phones, although like the other two categories, all PLBs do need an unobstructed view of the sky to be most effective. In addition, since the battery is normally rated for five years and there isn’t any annual or seasonal subscription fee to pay for using the device, the PLB is also your cheapest solution, although it doesn’t have a dedicated text or voice capability. Your PLB will not be of any use to you if you do not register it before you go on your trip. The registration gives you a Unique Identifier Number (UIN), which is transmitted when you trigger the PLB, along with your GPS location if your PLB has a built-in GPS.
As part of the registration, you enter your name as a minimum, but D ’Arcangelo advises you to do more. “I always encourage people to update the ‘Additional Information’ field of the PLB registration, how long they will be there, who is also going, and any medical information about the attendees to make it easier for SAR. You can take hours out of the search and rescue process by giving them that kind of information. You can also update the information in your registration each time you go out so that SAR can ensure they are equipped fort he emergency when they get to you.”
SATELLITE EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION DEVICES (S.E.N.D.)
Not designed solely for use in an emergency situation like the PLBs, SEND devices blend emergency notification features with text messaging and GPS positioning capabilities that allow the backcountry traveler to keep the folks at home up to date on what is going on or to let them know you need help but it’s not an emergency.
With some devices, you can also show a track of your travels on Google Maps so friends (and more importantly, SAR) can see where you have been and where you were the last time you were not in an emergency situation. D’Arcangelo advises, “Like thePLBs, your SEND device won’t be of much use to you or SAR if you don’t register it with GEOS using the instructions that come with your device. Make sure to fill in your personal information as well as any other useful information about the people in your party and where you are going.”
Although there are new companies coming out with SEND devices of late, the main players in the market are the SPOT family of devices from SPOT LLC and the inReach products from Delorme. Both companies provide devices that either work in a standalone capacity or as a satellite communications hot-spot, allowing your smartphone to connect to the satellite phone network when you can’t get a signal from your cellular phone network.
While the SPOT product line was the first in this market niche, the inReach products provide a wider range of capabilities with two-way messaging, a more robust satellite constellation, and integration with the GPS products and smartphone apps from their parent company, Delorme.
SATELLITE AND CELLULAR PHONES
Satellite phones are the most sophisticated and at the same time the simplest in some ways, D ’Arcangelo says. Most satellite phones have GPS capabilities and some allow you to send and/or receive text messages of various lengths. And, of course, they all have a voice capability as well.
To send an emergency message using a satellite phone, you either dial 9-1-1, just like you would do at home or on your cell phone, or press an emergency button on your phone, which will dial it for you. This 9-1-1 call will be sent to either the GEOS center that the SEND devices use or to a national 9-1-1 routing system that will take your information and then route it to the nearest emergency response teams in your area. You don’t need to know the phone number of the local fire and rescue.
“Some of the sat phones on the market also allow you to track where you are and display it on Google Maps or some other website just like the SEND devices do. Just keep in mind that this feature will use more battery power and may affect your minutes with your service provider,” reported D’Arcangelo.
As you can see, there are a number of devices out there to help you keep in touch with friends and family back home and to contact emergency services if you need to. When deciding which device makes the most sense for you and your needs, keep these three things in mind:
- If you just want something to send out an emergency call, then a PLB is your best choice as that is what it is designed to do and it has the strongest signal of the three categories of devices.
- If you, or your family and friends, want to know that you are ok while you are in the backcountry, then a SEND device is probably your best choice.
- If you want or need a full function device with voice, text and GPS, then a full featured satellite phone like the Iridium 9575 is going to be your best choice.
Matt Cashell, a member of the Sheriff’s Office who works with local SAR team members in Ravalli County, Montana, summed up emergency communications in the backcountry. “Inexperience is the number one factor in backcountry rescues. The most experienced backcountry travelers tend to be more prepared and have the best equipment, including backcountry communication devices. However, most rescues are of inexperienced backcountry travelers, and they tend to be ill prepared, including failing to carry a communication device. So the people that need that security the most don’t have it.”
If you are going to go out into the backcountry, or anywhere that you would need to be able to reach emergency services quickly, you owe it to yourself and those with you to have the basic skills to operate in that environment, either to keep yourself from getting into an emergency situation or to act when you are in one.
We should each know how to:
• Use a map and compass rather than depending on a GPS, which can only show you where you are, not pick the safest route from point A to point B.
• Build a shelter and make a fire, even in wet or cold weather.
• Evaluate injuries and provide basic first aid/first responder assistance.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter 2013 print issue of American Survival Guide.