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

3:34 p.m. on March 4, 2009 (EST)
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This thread is for comments on the article "I’m Lost, Help Find Me: A SPOT Gear Test"

Bill Straka explains the types of personal locator devices available for the backcountry and tests the SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker in redwood forests, a snowcave, and other locations.

Full article at http://www.trailspace.com/articles/help-find-me-spot-gear-test.html

5:29 p.m. on March 4, 2009 (EST)
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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.

9:15 p.m. on March 4, 2009 (EST)
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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.

11:06 p.m. on March 4, 2009 (EST)
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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.

11:26 p.m. on March 4, 2009 (EST)
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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!

7:56 a.m. on March 5, 2009 (EST)
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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.

10:39 p.m. on March 18, 2009 (EDT)
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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

3:07 p.m. on March 30, 2009 (EDT)
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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.

10:10 p.m. on June 8, 2009 (EDT)
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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.

12:09 a.m. on June 9, 2009 (EDT)
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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.

7:27 a.m. on June 9, 2009 (EDT)
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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.

3:49 p.m. on June 9, 2009 (EDT)
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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.

12:16 a.m. on July 23, 2009 (EDT)
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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

1:27 a.m. on July 27, 2009 (EDT)
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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).

7:59 a.m. on July 27, 2009 (EDT)
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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.

12:33 p.m. on September 2, 2009 (EDT)
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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...

1:13 p.m. on September 2, 2009 (EDT)
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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.

3:34 p.m. on September 2, 2009 (EDT)
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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...

4:50 p.m. on September 2, 2009 (EDT)
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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.

6:53 p.m. on September 2, 2009 (EDT)
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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.

9:00 p.m. on September 2, 2009 (EDT)
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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...

9:29 p.m. on September 2, 2009 (EDT)
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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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