Saved by satellite: Part Three of Three

SPOT satellite messenger beacons
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SPOT satellite messenger beacons

This is the last of our three-part orientation on satellite-based emergency signaling devices, those techno-wonders that let you call for help in committing situations, and take the ‘search’ out of Search and Rescue. The previous two posts explored Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) and satellite phones. Now we’ll take a look at the new SPOT satellite messengers which went on sale to the public in November of 2007. SPOTs offer somewhat less reliability than a PLB (for example, there's no worldwide coverage), but considerably more communication potential.

The SPOT is a waterproof, shock-resistant, soap-bar-sized unit that weighs 7 oz. and takes two AA batteries (only lithium cells offer significant transmit time). It operates off the Globalstar satellite system’s L-Band uplink (rather than the currently malfunctioning S-Band transmitters that Globalstar satellite phones use). Prior to the release of the SPOT beacons, Globalstar’s L-Band uplink was used primarily for automated sensing devices like river flow gauges, trucking companies, or pipeline pumping stations, to upload data or track objects in a one-way communication. Using this proven L-Band, the SPOT communicates in several ways using four buttons that sit on the front of every unit:

[] Power button. Hold it down for three seconds to turn on or off. The unit will stay powered in non-transmit mode for over a year. Average battery life (lithium AAs only) will send over 1,000 “OK” messages.

[] “OK” button: Sends a standard message to friends, family, or any other support group via e-mail or SMS saying that you’re all right. On e-mail it includes a link to Google Maps showing your exact location with latitude/longitude coordinates, and the time the message was sent. You type in the specific message wording on your SPOT account page, and specify up to 10 recipients.

[] “Help”: In the event of non-life-threatening emergencies like car breakdowns, strandings, or sprained ankles and knees, this sends a similar message to friends, family, or any other support group that you’re in distress and need help. The recipients can be different than those for your “OK” check-in messages. All “Help” and “911” messages are sent in triplicate for reliability. Duplicates are deleted in the system after being received. Again, you type in the specific “Help” wording on your SPOT account page.

[] “911”: This is the button to push in dire and life-threatening emergencies where you need immediate life support and evacuation. The alert is transmitted to GEOS Alliance, an international corporate rescue and security firm. The representatives at GEOS contact the emergency numbers listed in your SPOT registration to determine your possible situation, and then alert the relevant rescue authorities in whatever area your 911 message originated from. In the event that your SPOT beacon can’t determine it’s location via GPS, the message will be sent anyway, in order to begin evacuation preparations ASAP. Within the areas covered by SPOT beacons, this “911” function is similar to activating a PLB, and will result in an urgent rescue effort coordinated with local authorities. There are already numerous case histories showing that this system works, at least within the U.S.

[] Optional/ Tracking: With a $50 optional upgrade, you push and hold the “OK” button on the SPOT, and it uploads your position every 10 minutes for 24 hours. This is useful for folks like adventure racers, casual route mappers. It’s also the only current option for adventure sports where a sudden fall or rockslide can render one instantly unconscious and unable to activate a push-button beacon.

[] Optional/Rescue Insurance: With purchase of a SPOT beacon, you can opt to buy up to $100,000 of world-wide rescue insurance (not medical/health) for only $8/year. In the event of international rescues where authorities are not capable, this would include hiring private evacuation and medical resources. Purchased separately, plans like this typically run $150 and up, depending on your activity.

Money Stuff

SPOT beacon: $169

Annual subscription (OK, Help, 911): $99

Optional $100,000 rescue insurance benefit: $8/year

Optional tracking: $50/year

Does SPOT work?

We received a SPOT prototype for testing in early October. Since then, we’ve transmitted at least 150 OK messages from most areas of the continental U.S., and even moving sailboats in the Caribbean. After a short learning curve, our successful send-out rate has been virtually 100%. We’ve been impressed by how well our test SPOT has transmitted from timber, timbered gullies, and even fairly narrow slot canyons (with perhaps a 20-degree angle of overhead sky). However, we quickly found that the SPOT transmits most reliably if you power it up, set it in a stationary position with the logo face-up, and give it at least 10 minutes to self-locate and contact a satellite (more time in challenging environments). SPOT recommends 30 minutes of transmit time, but in most cases our messages have gone out far faster – often in two minutes or less.

The reason for the potentially long time window is that the SPOT works off low earth orbital (LEO) satellites that orbit rapidly (70 to 100 minutes to circumnavigate earth) at relatively low (870 miles) altitudes. Thirty minutes generally allows enough time for at least one of the 40 Globalstar satellites to pass overhead and gain line-of-sight to the SPOT. Consequently, SPOTs don’t work nearly as well if you’re hand-holding them, or moving around. Warning: You can’t just hit the power button, press 911, and then power down, or throw the unit in your pack. You’ve got to put it in an auspicious location and let it work, not fiddle with it.

The gist: For SPOT’S coverage areas (i.e. not Alaska) we consider it nearly as reliable as a 5-watt, 406 MHz PLB, and the communication features let you tailor the level of response to the seriousness of the emergency.

Why a SPOT?

In many situations, a SPOT makes more sense than a PLB. Hiking or 4WD clubs can support their members in non-life-threatening situations, removing the burden from public authorities. Spouses can rescue their mate when the car breaks down on a commute. Land managers and outfitters can have their field personnel check in daily, eliminating the need for complex and pricey sat phone communications. Camps and outdoor programs can follow the progress of student-led groups.

Last but not least, SPOT beacons mean that, all of a sudden, hiking solo doesn’t mean traumatizing your spouse when you come home late, or fighting with Uncle Lenny from Ohio who read somewhere that the #1 rule of hiking is to never go alone. SPOT beacons not only have the ability to signal reliably for help, they also have the ability to signal “Relax. It’s cool,” thus preventing unneeded searches that often occur when worried relatives trigger premature rescues.

In this vein, SPOT saved my life last Friday. Jennifer and I had been invited to an opening night dinner for Café Diablo, a local gourmet-Southwest restaurant. I was commanded to attend by Mrs. Howe, and the seating was an inconvenient 6 p.m., but I also wanted to get in a long training run because I’m preparing for an upcoming Denali expedition. Jen correctly pointed out that I usually get back home about 10 minutes before we’re supposed to show, jump in the shower, and arrive wet. I promised I wouldn't, and I had the best intentions, but as per form, I made a few wrong turns and ran late getting back to trailhead. This time, however, I took the time to send several OK messages, which all uplinked quickly. When I arrived home, I was met by a smiling blue-eyed blonde rather than Shiva, the Hindu goddess of destruction. Now that is what I call a life-saving device!

Quibbles

Still, the SPOTs are relatively new, and there are a few things we’d like to see changed in future versions:

[] The belt clip needs to be more secure. As is, it’s easy to dislodge the beacon. Since nobody would carry this on a belt anyway, we’d rather see a loop molded into the high-impact housing that’s large enough to clip a full-sized carabiner, or pass a one-inch Fastex buckle through.

[] SPOT needs to change the pattern on the message confirmation lights. At present, when you press any message button (OK, Help, 911) that button flashes green, and then becomes a steady green light for five seconds while the satellite is contacted, then goes back to flashing green again. Unless you actually witness the transmission, you don’t know if the message went out. The message buttons should flash red once you press them, and then change to green after a successful transmission.

In summary, PLBs, satellite phones and SPOT messengers all have their place for backcountry emergencies, and they all offer a level of security unheard of only a decade ago. Despite the relative newness of these devices, hundreds of case histories have already shown that they can save worry, rescuer time, and perhaps your life as well. They are all available for rental, and we recommend testing to see which one might be best for your needs. But nowadays, there are few good excuses for not carrying a reliable satellite signaller on your wilderness adventures.

Travel safe.--Steve Howe