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Emergency Location Devices

Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Search & Rescue Unit strongly recommends an emergency location device for anyone heading into the backcountry.

Tuolumne County’s vast backcountry has little to no cellular coverage. Your cellphone, therefore, will be of no use in an emergency situation (although it might be a great device to record your last wishes and goodbyes).

The Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Search & Rescue Unit urges everyone recreating in our remote backcountry to have the means of communicating in an emergency. Even the most experienced hikers, outfitters, and hunters can easily find themselves in a situation where help is urgently needed and most of our experienced outdoor people are prepared with some type of emergency communication device.

We strongly recommend an emergency location device for anyone heading into our backcountry. The purpose of this article is to give you some basic information regarding the options and choices for emergency communication.

Emergency beacons can be separated into two distinct types. Those capable of communicating with the U.S. government’s SARSAT system (Search And Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking) 406Mhz Emergency Beacons and those provided by private companies using a different infrastructure. Here are some of the pros and cons for each system.

These thoughts and recommendations are based mainly on our personal use of some of these devices and our response to some of these varied systems in helping rescue people in Idaho County.

In 1972, Nick Begich and Hale Boggs went missing in Alaska while flying a Cessna 310. It just so happened that both were members of Congress. As you can imagine, search and rescue attempts were high-profile and intensive. The search involved 90 aircraft alone. After 39 days the search was called off. No sign of the men or the plane has ever been found.

As a result of that search, Congress decided (and legislated) that airplanes carry emergency beacons that would automatically broadcast at the time of a crash. One thing led to the next and eventually a satellite network was developed and fine-tuned. Currently, different types of satellites listen for these signals in different orbital elevations. The result (along with international cooperation with other countries) is a fairly robust system able to set off a chain of events when an emergency signal is received.

The SARSAT system is managed by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and now is easily accessed by hikers, airplanes, ships at sea, etc. The devices used by hikers in Idaho County are small, often weighing less than 6 ounces and a little bigger than a deck of cards. They usually come with batteries that will last 5 years or more. Once activated the device will typically transmit for a day before the battery dies. The best newer models also send your GPS location in addition to triggering the system.

These devices do not require any type of monthly subscription. The only financial expenditure is for the device itself, which hopefully you will never use. SARSAT beacons come in a wide variety of designs made by many different companies. The cost for a good SARSAT beacon will probably be in the $300 to $500 range. An ACR ResQLink 400 currently costs $340 on Amazon and has a 5-star rating.

A SARSAT beacon is not capable of sending more information than a basic “We have an emergency and we are at this location.” These beacons are intended for imminent distress or emergency situations, not for events that might be inconvenient.

Satellite Communicators offer many more features, but at an increased cost. Garmin inReach, Zoleo, Spot, and Bivy are examples of manufacturers of these devices. Typically a user buys the gadget and then pays a monthly recurring cost for service. Manufacturers offer tiered service structures with the user paying more for the increased capabilities over the basic package. Often manufacturers allow users to downgrade their plans to a cheaper rate during an anticipated off-season.

Many TCSAR personnel use Garmin inReach devices and have their own personal units they pay for privately, but use for TCSAR duties.

Zoleo is another type of satellite communicator. The device itself is small and rugged. It has two buttons, one for an SOS and the other for an “I’m fine” check-in that is delivered to a person of choice. Zoleo’s versatility is unlocked with a messaging app that pairs a smartphone to the device. The app is like a typical messaging app and will send texts through a wifi or cell network (if available and at no cost) and through the satellite network when the Zoleo determines no other method is available. In our experience, Zoleo messages are received through the satellite in just a few minutes.

The device costs from $150 to $200 depending on current promotional offers. The typical plan costs $20 a month for up to 25 texts. If using the Zoleo smartphone app, however, the user can send up to 950 characters per text message, which means the user can send a small novel in the allotted 25 texts. After 25 texts the cost per message is fifty cents each.

Most satellite communicators, like inReach and Zoleo, offer additional features. Location sharing, often called “Bread crumbs”, is a popular feature. For example, you decide to go for a 5-day backpacking trip through the Emigrant. With the bread crumbs feature, your spouse can check your progress by viewing regularly marked locations on their computer or device.

Pros and Cons

SARSAT
Pros

  • After the initial purchase, no recurring fees.
  • Rugged and reliable.
  • Emergency help is dispatched.

Cons

  • Communication is only one way.
  • Emergency personnel are responding blind (no knowledge of the type of emergency)
  • Once activated there is no way to cancel the activation. If accidentally activated, first responders have no way of knowing an emergency is not occurring.
  • False activations can lead to fines.
  • Devices should be registered (www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov) and registered every two years. This information links the emergency activation to an identity, which aids responders in gathering valuable information as they respond (for example, known medical issues).

Satellite Communicators
Pros

  • Device price averages less than SARSAT devices.
  • Rugged and reliable.
  • Emergency help is dispatched.
  • User can cancel response if inadvertently activated
  • User can communicate back and forth with emergency personnel through the rescue process.
  • Users can send non-emergency text messages to friends and family.
  • Most devices will bluetooth to your cellphone, which allows the use of your phone to compose texts, access your contacts, etc.

Cons

  • Recurring monthly fees.

In conclusion, TCSAR benefits greatly from users of these devices and we are seeing increasing numbers of recreationists using emergency communicators. The cost (to all of us taxpayers) is reduced by knowing the nature of the emergency and using only what means are necessary and most effective for the rescue. A lost person call where the missing has no means of communication, involves numerous resources like tracking dogs, aircraft, personnel (on ATVs, etc.) …all thrown out in an attempt to find the missing as soon as possible. Aircraft costs alone are extremely expensive.

Tuolumne County receives limited state funds apportioned for search and rescue. If these funds were further limited in the future, it might be that families of the missing would be billed for search expenses, a practice that occurs in other jurisdictions around the U.S.

Because of Tuolumne County’s remote and inaccessible backcountry, even a targeted response to an activated beacon may involve an extended time before rescue arrives. Please travel with a good first aid kit, necessary medications, etc. and be careful. Keep in mind also that as a general rule, the more our 911 center knows about the nature of the emergency, the quicker the response will be.

Also, take precautions to avoid accidentally activating your device. With most of these devices, a flap must be lifted that protects the emergency button. Even with this precaution a large amount of the activations our dispatch center receives are inadvertent. So far, most of those have been from inReach devices, probably due to their popularity and market share. Think about how you have packaged your device or where it is being carried. You want it readily accessible but also secure enough to prevent any possible accidental activation.

Garmin inReach devices come in various configurations with the inReach Mini being the smallest unit with a size similar to the Zoleo. Both are available for purchase, through many online sources.

We want you to enjoy your outdoor time to the fullest, and we want you to be safe and prepared for the worst. Should the worst occur, having an emergency communication device will get you the help you need in the fastest, most efficient way possible. Help us help you. Take an emergency communicator with you on your next backcountry adventure!

Note: Much of the information in this article was obtained in part or whole from the Idaho County Sheriff’s Office and we appreciate their efforts and dedication to keeping people safe in their jurisdiction and others as this information is shared with similar agencies with remote areas of operations.

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