What Really Happens When You Trigger an SOS?

Emergency notification devices, such as the Garmin inReach Mini, can save lives in the backcountry. Learn how they facilitate a rescue.

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While an emergency notification device that sends a distress message via satellite is an indispensable piece of adventure gear for most backcountry enthusiasts, hitting that SOS button is usually an intimidating last resort. A distress message on a device with only one-way capability feels like it requires agencies to immediately send in the cavalry who, unsure of the situation, uses every possible resource, alerts family and friends that you’re in trouble without a lot of information, and initiates a search and rescue worthy of the local news. In any situation other than the most dire, initiating an SOS feels like it could be an embarrassing and often expensive jump.

With today’s two-way satellite technology, which generally uses an independent emergency coordination center and even provides the ability to cancel your SOS call, automatically sending in all available resources is not actually what happens when you ask for help. Carrying along a modern satellite communication device shouldn’t be a burden and hitting SOS shouldn’t be something you only do in the throes of death.

So, what actually happens when you hit SOS on a two-way personal locator?

1. To space and back.

A two-way satellite communicator such as the Garmin inReach Mini communicates reliably with a satellite constellation. In the case of the inReach Mini, it is the Iridium satellite network, a constellation of 66 Iridium satellites in a low earth orbit around the entire planet, ensuring every part of the globe is constantly covered, so there are no black holes of service. No matter where you are, the first message that gets shot to the nearest satellite after triggering SOS from your device includes a standardized message asking for help, as well as your location.

After routing through the satellite network, your message and location arrive on the computer screen of a trained professional at the 24/7 monitoring facility. The inReach Mini uses the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center.

2. A friend on the line.

With a one-way emergency notification device, sending out the distress call would be the extent of your options. Without being able to communicate back and forth, you would only be able to sit tight and hope help were on its way. But with a two-way device such as the Garmin inReach Mini, you’ll get a message back very quickly from the agent at GEOS asking about your situation. By giving them more information, GEOS will determine exactly who and what to send your way. Rather than assuming a life-or-death situation and sending every resource available, you can dial it back and get exactly the amount of help you need, making it a lot easier to ask for help in situations that don’t require a full medivac.

3. Call the chopper.

To rule out an inadvertent SOS, GEOS will quickly attempt to reach you and your emergency contacts by phone. Simultaneously to avoid losing any time, using your location and any information you provided about your situation, GEOS will determine the emergency responder best suited to help you, such as a local search and rescue group, local police, park rangers, the Coast Guard or others to get a rescue in the works immediately.

4. Mom, I’m OK.

While you’re waiting for rescue, you can continue to provide information to the GEOS agent, who stays in contact with you and your rescuers. Your location is also automatically updated. The agent will also make an attempt to contact any emergency contacts you listed beforehand to make them aware of the situation. But with a two-way satellite communicator, you also can send messages to reassure family and friends that you’re OK, letting them know what’s happening in real time, or giving them details such as at which hospital to meet you if necessary.

Someone passes by on the trail who can help you get out? It’s just as easy to call off the SOS. According to GEOS, it’s much easier to call off a rescue that’s already in motion than to start one, so they argue you’re safer taking the chance on getting help and stopping it later.

5. Help has arrived.

By providing information about your condition, more specific details about your location and by communicating directly with GEOS, rescue is more likely to arrive quicker, with exactly what the scenario calls for and with as little stress as possible in what could otherwise be a life-or-death situation. 

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