I’m Lost, Help Find Me: A SPOT Gear Test

Table of Contents

 

Background

While it is always best to avoid getting lost or injured in the first place, an increasing number of people are heading into remote backcountry areas, some lacking in navigational and survival skills. The result is an increasing number of incidents requiring the rapid summoning of help. At the same time, the proliferation of cell phones and GPS receivers has increased dependence on electronic devices to locate lost and injured persons.

While 911 emergency systems can summon aid in urban areas, typically with a 5-minute response time, an expectation of rapid response in non-urban areas has developed. Thus the concept of a device similar to aircraft Emergency Locator Beacons (ELT), marine emergency beacons (EPIRB/Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon), and skiers’ avalanche beacons has given rise to several types of pocket-sized personal locator and tracking devices.

The traditional locator device is a simple transmitter that is activated in an emergency situation such as a hard impact (aircraft) or immersion in salt water (marine beacons), with the option of manually activating it. In the case of avalanche beacons, the beacon is turned on at the start of a tour and left on continuously in case the wearer is caught in an avalanche. In the past, a transmission did not include any identifying or location information, and had to be found by a relatively complex search procedure. Now, many EPIRB’s for aircraft, marine, and backcountry use transmit an identification code and are located by reception by satellites. For many applications, coded EPIRB’s are required, and must be registered.

There are three types of emergency location devices available for the backcountry traveler.

TracMe

The simplest device is similar to the basic ELT or avalanche beacon, in that it transmits a simple signal that must be located by a grid search procedure. The TracMe is an example of this. It is activated by pulling the bottom off. It then transmits a signal on FRS Channel 1. The searcher has to know that the person is missing to begin the search and must have an FRS radio. The search consists of proceeding in the direction the missing person is thought to have taken, while listening to the FRS radio. The signal can be received if you are on line of sight up to 2 to 5 miles, depending on the terrain. Once the signal is acquired, you continue in the same direction until the signal peaks and starts to fade. You then turn at right angles at the peak signal point and find the next peak signal point. This type of grid search is the simplest for an untrained searcher, but can be improved by someone familiar with avalanche search procedures.


Figure 2. The ACR TerraFix 406 personal locator beacon.

The strength of the TracMe type of device is its simplicity and low cost. A young child can be trained in its use and can carry it with him or her. If she discovers she is lost, she can activate the unit and stay in one place until found. Youth organizations can equip everyone in the group with a unit, with the leaders having FRS radios to conduct a search. The weakness is that you must know that a person is missing, their general location, and that they have a TracMe.

Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

An example of the most sophisticated Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is the ACR TerraFix 406. Like the marine EPIRB, it transmits on 406MHz, must be registered, and is received by the COSPAR-SARSAT satellite system. It includes a GPS-derived position in its transmission, so the satellite system can get a much more accurate location than the simple triangulation used for EPIRB’s without an included GPS receiver. It is, however, quite expensive, costing typically $600-$700 (though sometimes on sale for as little as $400). Like all PLB’s, it must be activated manually.

SPOT

Recently, a much less expensive emergency beacon, known as SPOT (Satellite POsitioning and Tracking), has become available. Like the ACR TerraFix, SPOT includes a GPS receiver. However, instead of using COSPAR-SARSAT, SPOT (a subsidiary of Globalstar) transmits its messages via the digital service of the Globalstar satellite phone system.

 

Basic Features of SPOT

SPOT has several attractive features. First is the price ($170 plus an annual subscription, depending on how much message capability you want). Second is that you have several message types you can send out: OK, Help, and 911.

OK and Help


Figure 3. The SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker’s function buttons.

The OK and Help messages are sent to a group of up to five people you designate for each type at their email or cell phone text address. The 911 message is sent to an international search and rescue coordination agency, which then attempts a contact with your designated primary contact to confirm your registered information, then notifies the main search and rescue agency nearest your location as given by the SPOT 911 message.

The OK and Help messages are pre-programmed by the user on the SPOT website before you head into the field, along with your list of contacts for each of the two message types. For example, your OK message might be “I’m OK, but running late.” The OK message is repeated three times during a 20-minute period, to ensure that it is transmitted via the Globalstar network.

The Help message might be “I’m stranded at this location and need assistance.” These messages are transmitted at 5-minute intervals, along with the time and GPS-derived location. This information is relayed to your five Help contacts, along with a link to GoogleEarth that will display your location on a satellite image or map. This allows notification at a level that does not require a full-scale search-and-rescue effort (see the GoogleEarth image, Figure 9, below).

Track

Another type of information that can be transmitted to a designated group is the Track information. This is a simple time and location message, transmitted every 10 minutes, that is stored on the SPOT website for up to 30 days. It is accessed by someone you have supplied with your username and password, or can be shared by means of a Share message, sent to a list of recipients, that allows them to click on a link that allows display of the Track locations on a GoogleEarth map.

911

Unlike the traditional PLB, the SPOT 911 message does not activate the COSPAR-SARSAT network. Rather, the message is relayed via Globalstar to the GEOS International Emergency Response Center, repeated at 5-minute intervals until cancelled or the battery runs dead. This message includes your identification, the time of the message, and, if a GPS-derived position is available, the position. When GEOS receives the message, they attempt to contact your primary contacts to verify the information on file. GEOS then notifies the search and rescue (SAR) agency in the area of the location. If SPOT does not have a GPS lock, GEOS continues monitoring the signal and attempting to contact your primary contacts.

 

Field Testing and Evaluation


Figure 4. The author tests his SPOT device. For the best message transfer it is important to hold the SPOT horizontally. (Credit: Bill Straka)

Overall, SPOT is an excellent concept. It provides a relatively inexpensive means of summoning help in an emergency, providing approximate tracks, and sending brief status messages, while in remote locations. Operation of the device is simple, a very desirable feature for an emergency signaling device.

During my testing of SPOT over a six-month period, I put it through tests in a few simple and a number of more difficult situations. Because SPOT uses a GPS-derived position for each of the message types, I included the very trying canyon and canopy situations, including the steep canyons and redwood forests in the Santa Cruz mountains and mountainous terrain in the Sierra Nevada. Tracking tests were performed during hikes on established trails and off-trail, and on bicycle. Help messages were generated in the full range of locations and while in a snow cave. The 911 function was not tested, but is similar enough to the Help function that the results should be representative.

In the case of Help messages, I allowed the SPOT to run for an hour or two at a fixed location, then averaged the locations. Individual positions varied up to 150 feet from one another. This is due in part to the inherent random variations in positions derived from the GPS data and in part due to the “quantization” of the SPOT reports (SPOT reports longitude and latitude in decimal degrees to 4 places (0.0001 degrees), or approximately on a grid with a 36 foot spacing.

Error sources for GPS-derived positions include errors in the clocks in each satellite and in the receiver, atmospheric effects in the ionosphere and troposphere through which the signals for each satellite must pass, drift of the orbit from the most recently updated ephemeris for each satellite, and other factors. When the Help positions for durations of an hour or more were averaged, the derived location was always within 5 feet of the actual location derived from topographic maps and from positions obtained from commercial GPS receivers (including one case where a survey-grade GPS position was obtained).

The top-level conclusion is that, as an emergency locator, SPOT is adequate for most probable users. There are some limitations that can be worked around if the user will make the effort to become familiar with SPOT in benign situations before venturing into a higher risk situation. Details will be given in the following discussion.

 

Basic Operations

Setting up and using the SPOT is very simple out of the box, perhaps deceptively so, since getting a really useful emergency message through requires a little understanding of how the system works, from the GPS-based part of SPOT through the relaying of the messages via Globalstar to your team or GEOS. This same caution about making SPOT fully reliable applies to any emergency locator. However, the skimpy user manual and the website both are less informative than desirable, although more information has been added to the website over time.


Figure 5. Step one of SPOT’s easy set-up: insert batteries.

All that is necessary to get SPOT ready for use is to remove it from the box, insert the batteries (preferably lithium-iron AA’s — alkaline batteries have a much shorter life), and setting up your profile on the SPOT website. Your profile consists of creating a message for the OK and Help functions, entering the contact information for up to five team members each for the OK and Help functions (email address or text-messaging address), and providing certain information for the 911 function. You should review and update your information for each trip, as you should do anyway in providing information to your contacts on your itinerary for each trip.

Once at the trailhead, the unit is turned on by holding the power button down for a couple seconds. An OK signal is sent by pressing the OK button and holding it for a couple of seconds. The OK and power LEDs will blink simultaneously, indicating that a 3D fix has been obtained. The unit will attempt three times during a 20-minute period to send a signal through the Globalstar satellites. When the signal is being sent, the OK light will glow steadily for a few seconds. Because relaying the signal is dependent on a Globalstar satellite being in the right position, it is best to keep the unit oriented properly in a location with a clear view of the sky for the full 20 minutes.

During my tests, I found that the message usually got through within 10 minutes if I was in a favorable location, but often did not get through if I turned the unit off in less than 10 minutes, if I were in less favorable locations or was moving, or was not careful to keep the unit properly oriented. If the unit does not have a 3D lock, the message that is transmitted includes a comment “No GPS Fix” (see example below). This message may still get through, however.

It is important to note, that while SPOT indicates that OK, Help, and 911 messages have been transmitted, there is no indication that the message has or has not been received. To be fair, the same is true of most, if not all, ELT, EPIRB, and PLB units for the non-military user.

To track your position, the OK button is held down until the OK LED shuts off, indicating that the Track mode has been entered. The power and OK lights then will blink simultaneously every few seconds as long as a 3D fix on the GPS satellites is held, but will blink at different rates when lock is lost. In the Track mode, your position is sent to your user file on the SPOT website, and to those people for whom you have created a Share notification (more about Share later).

If a situation arises in which you need to call for help, you can send a message with either the Help or 911 buttons, depending on the seriousness of the situation and/or your arrangements for a backup team. In either case, with the SPOT turned on, hold the Help or 911 button down for about 5 seconds to initiate the request. With the Help button, the message sent is the one you preprogrammed on your SPOT web page, with an attempt to send every 5 minutes, continuously until the battery runs down. This message goes to the Help team you entered before leaving on your outing.

The 911 message is sent to the GEOS international site, which attempts first to contact the primary contact you supplied. This helps to confirm that the message is real and not a false alarm (two friends who have used SPOT have accidentally triggered the 911 message during an outing). GEOS then contacts the search and rescue agency covering the area in which the signal originated. Both the Help and 911 messages can be cancelled.

The following are some typical messages that get sent to your team. Although the dates of the messages may be fairly old by the time you read this, I believe you will be able to see the GoogleEarth display if you enter the URL in your browser. Note that the messages contain a title, identifying the type of message, the serial number of the SPOT unit, the latitude and longitude (to 4 places in decimal degrees, or approximately 36 feet), a “Nearest Location” and distance to the location, the time of the transmission in Universal Time (not the local time at the location), and the URL to see the GoogleEarth display.

The “Nearest Location” often comes up as “not known”, even when in a city or other well-defined location. In a number of cases, the named location is fairly obscure or may be a significant distance away. It would seem to be of minor importance, since the lat/lon position is given to about 36 feet, a much more useful piece of information when searching for someone who is lost, especially since you can see the map and satellite image just by clicking on the URL.

Several GoogleEarth satellite images and maps from National Geographic’s Topo! with locations from SPOT tests and tracks obtained with a Garmin 60CSx are shown below.

 

Figure 6. Donner Pass Area (click for full size)

 

Figure 6 shows the series of Track points generated during a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, going from Donner Pass north to Flora and Azalia Lakes and returning, as shown on a GoogleEarth satellite image. Note that the spacing between points, which are numbered in time sequence, is not uniform. This is due to dropouts in SPOT holding fixes on the GPS satellites and links to Globalstar under tree canopy and “canyon” effects. Also, since the nominal spacing of Track points is 10 minutes, the trail distance between points at a 3 mile per hour hiking rate is about one half mile. The actual spacing will vary with hiking speed, as well as the loss of satellite contact. Thus, detail of the actual path taken is lost.

Figure 7. Mission Peak, comparing GPS track with SPOT Track points

Figure 7 compares a series of SPOT Track points (blue diamonds) collected during a hike up Mission Peak, in the San Francisco Bay Area, to a track file (purple dashed line) recorded with a typical consumer GPS receiver, a Garmin 60CSx. Again, the track points are numbered in time sequence. Some Track points are not on the Garmin track, due in part to the precision of the SPOT being approximately 36 feet, in part because of the inherent error budget of the Global Positioning System, and in part due to terrain effects (“canyon” effects) on the steep hillsides.

 

Figure 8. OK Message, Windy Hill Open Space Preserve (click for full image)

Figure 8 is a GoogleEarth satellite image produced from an OK message. The message used for the image is shown below. When your team members receive an OK or Help message, they can view the image by entering the URL contained in the last line of the message block into most web browsers. The location in this case is Windy Hill, near Skyline Drive on the San Francisco Peninsula.

OK Message

Bill S SPOT test. I'm here.
ESN:0-7361118
Latitude:37.3649
Longitude:-122.2462
Nearest Location:not known
Distance:not known
Time:08/24/2008 18:04:07 (GMT)
http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&geocode=&q=37.3649,-122.2462&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1

 

Figure 9. SPOT Help message from inside snow cave (click for full image)

The following Help and Help Cancel messages were generated from inside a snow cave at the location marked in Figure 9 above as “Actual snowcave position.” The position given by SPOT is about 95 feet from the snow cave. GoogleEarth images are in general from snow-free days. Displacement is due to a combination of canyon and canopy effects, plus passage through the roof and walls of the cave. Note, however, that getting within 100 feet is far better accuracy than a search and rescue team is normally provided.

Help Message

This is a HELP message from Bill Straka. Testing only.
ESN:0-7361118
Latitude:39.3196
Longitude:-120.3532
Nearest Location:not known
Distance:not known
Time:03/08/2008 00:31:56 (GMT)
http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&geocode=&q=39.3196,-120.3532&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1

Help Cancel Message

The help message has been cancelled
ESN:0-7361118
Latitude:No GPS fix
Longitude:No GPS fix
Nearest Location: not known
Distance: not known
Time:03/08/2008 00:38:40 (GMT)

 

Conclusions

As stated earlier, SPOT serves a very useful function as an emergency location device at a very reasonable price. Keeping the price down led to several compromises in the first generation of SPOT. The biggest compromise was the decision to use a combined GPS receiving and Globalstar transmitting antenna, combined in a flat plate (patch) antenna design. This combination has degraded sensitivity compared to having dedicated separate GPS and satellite communication antennas, compared to current consumer GPSR’s. This results in a significant sensitivity to orientation and to canyon and canopy effects.

The combined antenna also is weaker in getting signals through to the Globalstar satellites than a dedicated separate antenna would be. The GPS chipset was chosen for low power consumption, hence long battery life. This chipset is also less sensitive than chipsets introduced by many companies in the past couple of years.

In practice, these compromises result in skipped updates in Track messages and times when OK and Help messages do not get through. In some cases, I observed gaps of more than 30 minutes, up to over an hour in Track message sequences. This was particularly true when bicycling or hiking under redwoods, but showed up under other conifers as well. Individual positions were sometimes off by 150 feet or more, although leaving the unit stationary for extended periods (such as would normally be the case when sending genuine Help or 911 messages) allows averaging the reported positions and getting positions accurate to a few feet.


Figure 10. SPOT can be worn horizontally on a pack’s shoulder strap. (Credit: Bill Straka)

Users of the present generation can greatly improve the message transfer success rate by making sure that the SPOT is held horizontal with the SPOT logo facing directly vertically. The inclusion of a belt clip encourages users to clip the unit to the belt or a pack strap in a vertical position. If your pack has a means of clipping the SPOT horizontally on the top or if you can tape SPOT in place in a horizontal orientation (but do not use a metallized tape, such as many versions of duct tape), message transfer and GPS reception will be enhanced. As I determined this during my tests, my success rate at getting a higher percentage of Track positions, and OK and Help messages through the system improved greatly. Further, when sending OK and Help messages, I found that making an effort to get into an open area and to keep the SPOT positioned correctly for 15 to 20 minutes also enhanced the success rate.

It is important to remember that the speed of getting messages through and any actions taken as a result are dependent on the messages being monitored. SPOT’s 911 messages are continuously monitored by GEOS, and the response time is very timely for rescues in remote areas. However, OK and Help messages are sent either as email to your team members’ email system or as a text message to their cell phones. These two message types are intended for less urgent contacts. If your team members’ cell phones are turned off or if they only check their email once a day, any needed action could be long delayed. Some friends who participate in adventure races make sure that their backup team is continuously monitoring their progress.

SPOT has been in the field for more than a year. The real proof is rescues. SPOT is credited with more than 50 rescues. One unsuccessful rescue generated a lot of overly sensational press coverage. However, the 911 signal was received during a significant blizzard in the Sierra, which prevented the search and rescue group from being able to respond quickly. The body recovery was affected before the storm had completely cleared, nonetheless. The autopsy showed that the victim had probably died of hypothermia within hours of the signal being received.

There have been several false alarms, due to the 911 button being pushed accidentally. Two of these involved friends of mine, one during an adventure race and the other on Denali. The adventure race incident involved the 911 button actually being pushed by mistake. This was cancelled when the racer’s primary contact was reached at a checkpoint, at about the same time as she had passed the checkpoint.

The Denali alarm occurred because the unit was in the top pocket of the pack of one of the two in the party and was set down against a rock during a rest stop. The 911 button does have a raised ring around it. I have found in various intentionally trying scenarios that it is indeed possible to accidentally activate the unit (the 911 function was disabled in my test unit intentionally, but the other buttons are sufficiently similar). The SPOT developers are aware of this problem and are addressing it.

In discussions with the developer of SPOT, I learned that they are addressing the issues I mentioned above. In some cases, there have been significant technical advances that address the normal issues with the first generation of any device (as there are in all electronic devices, even in later generations). Other issues concerning the user interface are being addressed also. Hopefully, Trailspace will be able to test the next generation SPOT in the near future. We will update this review when the new version becomes available to us.

Some readers might infer that SPOT has too many problems in its present state. On the contrary, if the user is aware of and takes into account the basic limitations of the Global Positioning System and satellite communications systems, and indeed of all electronic positioning and communications systems, SPOT can be literally a life saver, and has been already. SPOT, like all GPS-based and satellite-communications-based systems is undergoing rapid development. In my discussions with the company, they are taking their mission of making an affordable emergency location device very seriously.

However, no matter how good and how inexpensive personal emergency location devices become, and no matter how rapidly emergency responders can get to the site of an incident, it remains the responsibility of each individual going into the outdoors to be properly equipped, properly trained, and to avoid accidents and incidents. There is risk in everything in life, and no electronic widget is going to completely remove that risk or guarantee life and limb.

Filed under: Gear News

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SPOT Gear Reviews and Product Info  |  Locator Beacon Gear Reviews and Product Info  |  SPOT

Comments

f_klock
110 reviewer rep
762 forum posts
March 4, 2009 at 5:29 p.m. (EST)

Bill, this is great! Your hard work and dedication have resulted in exactly the kind of information that is needed to help people decide if the item is right for them, or not. I myself have been waiting for such an unbiased article. Thanks!

One question I have is from an operational standpoint. How are SAR teams designated and identified through the GEOS system? Our team is dispatched through our county 911 system, but as far as I know, we are not registered on any global networks.

Bill S
TOP 10 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
2,445 reviewer rep
5,389 forum posts
March 4, 2009 at 9:15 p.m. (EST)

Good question! Which means, I don't really know. My understanding is that GEOS contacts those agencies that have an official status to conduct S&R in the area where the 911 message originates. In the US, this normally means the local sheriff. In National Parks and National Forests, this generally means the Park Rangers or the USFS office covering the area. These agencies in turn either conduct their own operation or a volunteer S&R organization with which they have an arrangement. So I would guess that in your area, local 911 operations are under the jurisdiction of a local law enforcement agency, which would receive the call. I have heard it is similar to the way OnStar contacts the local emergency service.

Maybe you can ask your 911 officials if they have had contact with GEOS. That would be good information to know.

f_klock
110 reviewer rep
762 forum posts
March 4, 2009 at 11:06 p.m. (EST)

I'll do that, Bill. I happen to know our 911 coordinator personally. This will make interesting conversation over lunch one day. I'll let you know what I learn afterward.

jmcwatty
10 reviewer rep
193 forum posts
March 4, 2009 at 11:26 p.m. (EST)

Bill,

Thanks for the artical. It was very informative. My family has been pushing for me to get something like this for solo trips where cell signals are shotty. In your talks with the company did they give you a time fram for releasing a new generation SPOT. I would really hate to buy one and a month or two later they release a better version. Not that i am ready to go there yet, but I have been cosidering it.

Thanks again for the great review!

trouthunter
MODERATOR REVIEW CORPS
998 reviewer rep
3,555 forum posts
March 5, 2009 at 7:56 a.m. (EST)

Thanks Bill S. for the excellent review and all the work that went into it. I do have a couple questions, but first I will re-read the article as I may have missed something.

 

Again, Thanks.

riverridgeray
0 reviewer rep
28 forum posts
March 18, 2009 at 10:39 p.m. (EDT)

Bill: Thank you for all the information on a subject I was very interested in, but knew little about.

My main question is: when the batteries go dead and user inserts new batteries: is everything back to normal?

Yes makes sense, but I notice sometimes electronics do not make sense.

Re: the time to acquire the satellite. On Idaho's Middle Fork Salmon and in Nepal, I have watched the Satellite phone gurus spend a lot of time trying to acquire the signal. Steep canyons just don't work. (Yes, I know Gps units work much faster---but this is sending and receiving.)

Much of the northern rockies does not have cell phone service and I do a lot of solo trips. It makes sense to have a system that might lead to my being rescued, when I finally injure myself badly or have that heart-attack. Also, I think it is a kindness to both your loved ones and S&R to let them know exactly where your rotting body is at.

Two years ago S&R people and family spent most of the summer looking for a lost peak-baggers body in Idaho's Sawtooth Range. I think it is a final courtesy, if you solo, to use a system like this.

thanks, Ray

Bill S
TOP 10 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
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5,389 forum posts
March 30, 2009 at 3:07 p.m. (EDT)

riverridgeray -

Sorry not to answer sooner, but we are in the midst of building a house, and a friend and I spent the better part of a week thoroughly wiring coax, Cat 6, and other cables before the wall insulation and wallboard go up.

Changing batteries is no problem. I'm not sure what you mean by "back to normal". But when you turn the unit on after a battery change, all the functions are just as they are after any turn-on. The serial number is in firmware, so is not lost when batteries die. The messages are generated from SPOT's website, so the unit itself just sends out the GPS-derived location, what type message, and the serial number. The GPS chipset has a pretty standard search and acquisition algorithm, and the last acquisition stored the ephemeris in flash memory. So it is just like leaving it turned off for the same period of time - short time, fast acquisition, long passage of time, longer acquisition time.

nogods
26 reviewer rep
98 forum posts
June 8, 2009 at 10:10 p.m. (EDT)

Putting aside the tracking features and the text messaging feature (which seem to be in not-ready-for-prime-time stage), how does the spot measure up to a PLB for rescue/emergency service reliability?

I can get a PLB for $400 and no annual subscription fee. Over 5 years I would save about $400 over a cost of the SPOT and the subscription fee. PLB's use the international government sponsored Cospas-Sarsat rescue/emergency system which has a 30 year track record and more than 6500 rescues in the US alone. Isn't it a a more relaible and proven system?

If you focus on life saving, it seems the SPOT device and the system it is built on is several steps below the already existing PLB system.

I was thinking of getting a SPOT but then I read the terms of service. Basically it says that SPOT is not responsible for any failures in the messaging relay or response system because they sub-contract out all services or rely on non-related parties for the SPOT features to work.

In the US the PLB system is operated and maintainerd by NOAA.

THE SPOT TOS states that:

"SPOT does not own or control the service providers that operate the links between the satellite ground stations, including satellite antennas and supporting equipment, and the Globalstar satellites, nor does SPOT own or control the GPS Satellite Constellation, and cannot be responsible for any service interruptions that are associated with those Satellite Systems or ground stations and the SPOT enterprise systems."

"Neither does Spot own or control the cellphone and e-mail service providers who receive the SPOT e-mail and SMS messages, and is not responsible for any delays by the e-mail and cellphone providers related to these messages."

"SPOT has contracted with a third-party provider, Travel Safety Group dba GEOS (“GEOS”), to provide emergency monitoring services utilizing their GEOS 9-1-1 Emergency Call Center(s) (“ECC”). SPOT transmits 9-1-1 Emergency Signals received, along with applicable Registration Data information and available location coordinates, to the ECC."

I just don't feel comfortable trusting my life on such a patchwork system. Who are all these service providers and players in the message stream? What is their financial health? What is SPOT's financial health? Those questions would need to answered for me in detail before I'd put my life in the hands of an SPOT.

Bill S
TOP 10 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
2,445 reviewer rep
5,389 forum posts
June 9, 2009 at 12:09 a.m. (EDT)

Current PLBs (like the ACR) also use GPS. The older PLBs got the position from using doppler for the emergency beacon, thus needing a fair length of time to get the location, which had a larger error circle. The newer ones that have GPS capability also have added the same text-messaging and tracking capabilities, giving more accurate positioning in a more timely fashion, but with the same limitations on the GPS receivability as SPOT (the usual canyon/canopy problems, multipath, etc). Also, COSPAR requires a large bureaucracy to activate the S&R groups, with a required coordination between the international organization and the local group (with turf wars), where SPOT's partner GEOS directly contacts the nearest local S&R group. If you look closely at the disclaimers by the COSPAR-SARSAT organization, you will find basically the same disclaimers, plus the added "the government can not be held liable" if things do not work out. Also, if you add up the cost of the messaging and tracking services offered by the PLB manufacturers, you will find that they are very similar in cost (actually, when I did the comparison for 2 of the providers, the cost was significantly more, if I wanted more than a very basic service).

One difference is that your "team" directly receives the messages via their email or texting service (reason for the disclaimer on the email services - COSPAR/SARSAT also depends on your local email service to get the message from your buddy in the woods to you).

What it all comes down to is that you really have to take care of yourself, no matter whether you are hoping that some international quasi-governmental agency with the huge bureaucracy they always have or depending on a private company to bail you out when you make a dumb blunder. And you are depending on some electronic widget with batteries that always have less life than you hoped. No matter which alternative, you should always be prepared to self-rescue and just not get into the situation in the first place.

nogods
26 reviewer rep
98 forum posts
June 9, 2009 at 7:27 a.m. (EDT)

As i said in my original post, put aside the messaging and tracking features. I want to compare the rescue/emergency notification system.

I don't need to let anyone know I'm OK - I only need to let them know when I need help or rescue. If I want to twitter someone from the woods I'll bring my Blackberry and stay in areas with cell phone reception.

And I'm not interested in relying on a "personal 911 team" of friends with hotmail for a rescue. I want a device that gets a rescue/emergency message to the government agencies that are responsible for effectuating or coordinating a rescue as directly as possible. I really don't want to wait until "Bob" is out of his meeting and checks his email if I'm in a situation sever enough to require use of a PLB in the first place. If I'm going to invest in and carry a rescue/emergency device then I want the most reliable system I can afford.

PLB's use the 406 mhz digital system for relaying messages. They are also equipped with a 121.5 MHz homing frequency, to help rescuers go the final distance when visibility is reduced by darkness, fog, or vegetation. They are also capable of relaying gps info (either by way of an external gps or built in gps chip) but unlike the SPOT, the erratic and weaker GPS satellite system is not the main means of relaying messages and location method.

Trying to wipe aside the mishmash of corporations, subsidiaries and undefined alliances that currently make up the SPOT system by calling NOAA a bureaucracy is disingenuous. It appears that the company that sells the services for SPOT is Spot LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Globalstar, Inc, which according to google finance lost 21 million dollars in just the first quarter of 2009. Losses for 2008 were 68 million. Losses for 2007 were 27 million. Is that situation you want to bet your life on?

I've posted the exact language from the Spot website with regard to their disclaimers. You postulated that there are similar disclaimers with regard to PLB's but haven't been able to give any specifics. In my research I did not find any comparable disclaimers with regard to PLB's so if you have a source for them I’d appreciate a link so I can make a better comparison.

Bill S
TOP 10 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
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June 9, 2009 at 3:49 p.m. (EDT)

nogods,

I'm sorry you misinterpreted my response. You should read the "warranty" for the various PLB manufacturers. They all specifically disclaim all liability for losses "real or consequential".

I only presented the information so the reader can choose which, if any, electronic widget to carry in hopes (not expectation, hopes) that they might be rescued if they have a problem resulting from accident, carelessness, "act of God" (as the insurance companies put it), stupidity (either someone else's or their own), or intention.

All PLBs and other signal devices have their flaws, limitations, and strengths. But none can compensate for lack of preparation, lack of skills, or the whims of nature. If you believe one works for you, then fine, use it. If you believe that one or another does not meet your criteria, then fine, do not use it.

Your choice.

I have no recommendations, nor am I affiliated with any of the companies or governmental agencies involved in SAR or the electronic devices. The only time I have ever carried one was in testing for the reviews.

Reno Deano
0 reviewer rep
1 forum posts
July 23, 2009 at 12:16 a.m. (EDT)

Bill, what is the liability for the rescue cost, for sending out a "911" from your SPOT for another injured party. Recently I had two people rescued near Soldiers Meadows, Nevada and the air med-evac cost each 24 thousand USD. That was for a 100 mile trip to Reno hospital.

Dean

Bill S
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July 27, 2009 at 1:27 a.m. (EDT)

Dean,

There is no one answer to your question. A lot depends on the circumstances. If there is a genuine emergency, it is rare that the victim gets charged anything. If you have evacuation insurance (which part of your SPOT subscription), you pay nothing (unless, of course, you send a deliberately or negligently false "emergency" call, just as with an in-town 911 call).

Note that I am not a lawyer and have no idea what the legal ramifications are. I can only repeat what I have been told and read elsewhere. If you are asking the legal question of liability, you will have to consult a lawyer, since I have not the slightest idea of the answer to your question.

On Denali, where I have spent time totalling several months, if you are injured or suffer from HAPE, HACE, frostbite, etc, there is no evac charge. But if you are the climbing partner and want to go for a ride out with the victim when you could get out under your own power, you will be charged (unless the NPS deems it necessary to evac you with the victim). And if you do as the two companions of one fellow did, get evacuated per the NPS decision, then head right back onto the mountain, you can even be arrested and receive a hefty fine. The deciding factors include your preparation, negligence, deliberate actions, etc. A well-prepared climber who has an unfortunate accident or a party caught in a storm will pay nothing, while the person who heads in inexperienced and unprepared, despite the NPS briefing and interview and strong advice not to go, will have to pay. But usually the military views the evac as a "training exercise", so it is, in effect, already paid for.

For Antarctica, I carry $300,000 evac insurance (required before ALE will let you on their plane). For most mountains in the world, my AAC membership carrries evac insurance with it. All insurance, of course, has limitations on coverage. Since insurance companies seem to be in the business of collecting premiums and not in the business of paying claims, they might very well find a way to wiggle out of paying anything at all.

What was the situation that got you the total of $48k in evac charges? That sounds highly unusual. I would guess you did not get an advance authorization from the local SAR/sheriff's office ("advance" can be as little as 5 minutes).

f_klock
110 reviewer rep
762 forum posts
July 27, 2009 at 7:59 a.m. (EDT)

Your post leaves out a lot of information, Dean.

Was the SAR/evac a result of a SPOT message? (Which is normally the case even when we are responding to a SAR call)
Were friends or family members there to meet SAR teams?
How long did the operation take?
How many PTS?
Extent, if any, of injuries?
Time of day/year?
Was a permit/waiver signed before the parties entered into the park? This is required in some areas and the possible costs of rescue are explained on the form.

All of these factors must have played a role in the decision making process involved in this kind of incident.

Someone obviously had to make the educated decision to fly the pts. to the hospital. Air medevac doesn't just come based on a "Someone's lost" call without the authority of a responsible EMS, EMA, fire, or police officer - at least they don't here in PA.

Flying the PTS also must have meant the there were injuries or health circumstances to warranted the flight as well. Again, that decision had to have been made by a responsible party. Otherwise they would have simply been brought to safe ground for land transport, not to the hospital.

If the helo was also used for search operations as well as evac., the cost is right in line. A 200 mile evac is a big trip. These are the costs one must pay to have services like SAR and air medical available in your area.

An additional thought is that some areas are so remote, that a helo might be the most practical means of a hasty search. It could take hours or even days to get ground-based crews into a particular area.

All these things must be considered when examining the cost of a wilderness rescue, evac, or body recovery. The latter not being the case here, so the helo seems to have been the correct tool for the job. Human life comes first, not money. We always say "If we rescue 'em, "someone" will pay for it, eventually. If they die - "someone" might not.

Note to Nogods: The 121.5 system is being phased out nationwide.

Cleric
73 reviewer rep
303 forum posts
September 2, 2009 at 12:33 p.m. (EDT)

Although it doesn't address some of the above issues, SPOT has recently announced a second generation reciever/transmitter. I know it does address some concerns raised by others in the rescue/outdoors world. Not an overwhelming amount of information on it yet. Equipped to Survive has a blog post:

http://www.equipped.org/blog/?p=113

I will be watching this new model with interest as it does address some serious concerns (verification of satellite signal, etc). Thought this would be of interest here...

Alicia
TRAILSPACE STAFF
715 reviewer rep
3,166 forum posts
September 2, 2009 at 1:13 p.m. (EDT)

Equipped to Survive has a blog post:

http://www.equipped.org/blog/?p=113

So, do we!

http://www.trailspace.com/blog/2009/07/21/spot-debuts-new-version.html

http://www.trailspace.com/blog/2009/07/21/outdoor-retailer-bill-day-one.html

We'll also be testing the new version as soon as it reaches our eagerly awaiting selves.

Cleric
73 reviewer rep
303 forum posts
September 2, 2009 at 3:34 p.m. (EDT)

Sorry! Still figuring out how to search and find on this site! I should have known you folks would have been on it as well.

Has anyone seen one of these out yet? I've been checking the retailers...

Alicia
TRAILSPACE STAFF
715 reviewer rep
3,166 forum posts
September 2, 2009 at 4:50 p.m. (EDT)

Glad you're checking out the site, Cleric. There is a search box on the upper-right of every Trailspace page, which should add some help.

The Spot 2 is not available in stores yet. It's expected in late fall.

trouthunter
MODERATOR REVIEW CORPS
998 reviewer rep
3,555 forum posts
September 2, 2009 at 6:53 p.m. (EDT)

I will be in line for one myself! Most places I go solo I can get a cell signal even if I have to put the phone up about 25 ft. But there are some places I would like to go solo where I can't get a phone signal, and having a spot will allow me to travel in more places with an added layer of communication.

In GSMNP & Cherokee NP (TN.) you can get a signal on most summits I've tried so far. But not in the watershed river corridors (valley floor).

I haven't tried in Pisgah (NC) yet, but I did get a signal in Nantahala (NC) at the higher elevations on two trips so far.

All in all not really reliable for every situation, so I'm hoping to get a Spot 2 soon, hopefully before my first winter solo. I'm particularly interested in the 'OK' and 'Track' features, hopefully I'll never need the 911!

The evacuation insurance that comes with a subscription is a good idea I think.

Cleric
73 reviewer rep
303 forum posts
September 2, 2009 at 9:00 p.m. (EDT)

For the cost, the evacuation insurance seems a bit like a no-brainer.

I am still caught between a SPOT and a PLB. The initial sticker-shock on the PLB's gets the pulse working. But, over time, they are easily the more cost-effective purchase.

I suppose it comes down to whether or not the wife/family really needs those "Ok" signals every day or so. When it comes to a "911" situation, both devices have their limitations. However, the "piece-meal" nature of SPOT's resources does raise concern. When I punch that button, I want the first-responders to know without a doubt. Don't need a break-down in a communication web... hmm...

trouthunter
MODERATOR REVIEW CORPS
998 reviewer rep
3,555 forum posts
September 2, 2009 at 9:29 p.m. (EDT)

Yes...I wish i had more experience with PLBs...one of my hiking buddies has one. I also use the Ham radio some

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