Mountain Rescue: Location, Location, Location
March 31, 2015
Go back in time to 1992. Portable phones that utilized land-based antenna towers were large, expensive and only worked in limited areas. Satellite phones were also available, but were, and still are, much too expensive for common use.
When there was a backcountry emergency help could only be summoned by sending somebody out to the trailhead so they could drive to a phone and call the authorities. If someone was alone and in trouble traditional techniques were, and still are, worth a try. Signal fires, mirrors to attract aircraft, SOS signals like three shots fired or three Xs in the snow remain viable options.
Since the advent of cell phone technology made portable phones affordable and the construction of cell tower networks increased network coverage, calling for help has become easier and faster. Cell phones have changed the logistics of how SAR responds to backcountry emergencies. In some cases, emergencies become a simple call for assistance. Many emergencies go unreported as people use cell phones to self-rescue.
Oftentimes the dispatch center or SAR technician can assist the caller by phone. We once had a person who got turned around in Hell Canyon, west of Monarch Lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. He had good cell service and a compass so I was able to direct him to the exit route from Hell Canyon over to the Roaring Fork.
Since the implementation of enhanced 9-1-1 over the last decade, location information is available whenever someone calls 9-1-1 from a cell phone. There are two types of location data that may be available – Global Positioning System (GPS) location or cell tower triangulation location.
Wireless carriers provide GPS location if the cell phone is able to access the satellites that provide GPS coordinates. Locations inside buildings, near cliffs or in narrow canyons often do not yield GPS data, or the data may be grossly inaccurate. If you are calling 9-1-1 from the backcountry try to call from an open area with a clear view of the sky. The young man we rescued two weeks ago in Baker Gulch was within 30 feet of the 9-1-1 GPS location.
Triangulation locations are not as accurate as GPS locations and depend on the cell phone "bouncing" off several towers. Most triangulation coordinates are accurate to within 1,000 feet – if at least three towers are involved. Oftentimes in the backcountry a cell phone will not be able to hit three towers and location information could be very general.
If you are not able to make a call because your phone does not have service it may still be possible to send a text message. Currently, only a handful of Colorado counties are able to receive 9-1-1 text messages, Grand County is not one of them.
Try to send a text to a reliable person that includes location information. Most accurate are GPS coordinates which you can get from your phone (there are many apps available) or a separate GPS device. Otherwise, give a description like you would verbally. Keep the text as short as possible.
We advocate that people bring their cell phone with them into the backcountry as a survival resource, but with several caveats. Most importantly, do not rely on your cell phone for survival!
Your battery can die, you may not have service or your phone may be damaged or lost in an accident. A cell phone cannot provide warmth, water, food or shelter. Your phone should be a backup to standard backcountry precautions. Even if you are able to place an emergency call, it takes time for SAR volunteers to mobilize and respond.
Be aware that a 9-1-1 call may not go to the most appropriate dispatch center. A call placed from high on the Divide could go to Boulder, Central City or Georgetown. Dispatch centers will reroute the information, but there is a delay.
Cell service can be very spotty in the backcountry. Once you find a place that has good service, stay there.
Unless you are expecting an important phone call, leave your cell phone off to conserve battery power. If you get into trouble and your battery is low we can arrange a time or interval for communications, but having a full charge makes communications much more seamless.
Cell phones are an important backcountry safety tool, just remember that they are not 100 percent effective.
Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 35 years. He can be reached by email at gfoley@grandcountySAR.com. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com or on Facebook/GCSAR.