Gear: November 2009 Archives


November 21, 2009

Search and Rescue (SAR) workers are complaining that hikers overuse personal locator beaconsPhilosoraptor). Here's one of the cases they site:
The Grand Canyon's Royal Arch loop, the National Park Service warns, "has a million ways to get into serious trouble" for those lacking skill and good judgment. One evening the fathers-and-sons team activated their beacon when they ran out of water.

Rescuers, who did not know the nature of the call, could not launch the helicopter until morning. When the rescuers arrived, the group had found a stream and declined help.

That night, they activated the emergency beacon again. This time the Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter, which has night vision capabilities, launched into emergency mode.

When rescuers found them, the hikers were worried they might become dehydrated because the water they found tasted salty. They declined an evacuation, and the crew left water.

The following morning the group called for help again. This time, according to a park service report, rescuers took them out and cited the leader for "creating a hazardous condition" for the rescue teams.

This does seem pretty egregious. That said, it's probably the most egregious case the reporter was able to find, so it's worth asking what fraction of times people light off their PLBs actually are inappropriate. Reading this article, one sort of gets the impression that SAR would prefer that people didn't really have PLBs at all:

"There's controversy over these devices in the first place because it removes the self sufficiency that's required in the back country," Scharper says. "But we are a society of services, and every service you need you can get by calling."


"In the past, people who got in trouble self-rescued; they got on their hands and knees and crawled out," says John Amrhein, the county's emergency coordinator. "We saw the increase in non-emergencies with cell phones: people called saying 'I'm cold and damp. Come get me out.' These take it to another level."

Obviously, I don't know the details of any of these cases, but it's not clear to me that having people crawling out of the backcountry on their hands and knees is really desirable (and it's pretty clear to me that people having to cut their own arm off because they couldn't call for rescue isn't really optimal). As for being "cold and damp", that covers a lot of territory from "vaguely damp" to "severe hypothermia". Hypothermia is no joke: if you fall into a river and all your gear is down and gets soaked and it's going to be sub-freezing at night, it might be very appropriate to call for rescue (though I should mention that you might not get it in time depending on how far out you are).

It seems to me that there are really two separate issues here:

  1. People calling for help in situations that are inconvenient rather than emergent.
  2. People acting in unsafe ways because they think they can rely on the beacon to get them out of trouble.

The first issue seems to me to be at least partly one of incomplete communication: the major existing beacons just send out a homing signal, so SAR has no idea what's wrong with you and has to come to you in order to find out whether you've broken both legs or just run out of beef jerky. On the other hand, an interactive channel such as a cell phone would allow SAR to find out what the problem is and determine how to prioritize/triage their response, something that first responders already have to do in response to 911 calls. In the limit, they could just say "this isn't important enough, we're not coming." We're already seeing some movement in this direction: the SPOT messenger allows preprogrammed messages to be sent, but isn't interactive and doesn't allow arbitrary messages. What you really want is a PLB combined with a sat phone, so you could have enough battery for something like 10 minutes of sat phone conversation and 24 hours of beacon transmit time. I imagine we'll see something like this eventually, at which point problem (1) will be a lot simpler.

I have mixed feelings about problem (2). One the one hand, if you go out into the wilderness with nothing but a leatherman and a tube of sunscreen, you pretty much deserve whatever happens to you. On the other hand, one does get a sense that a lot of the people complaining here feel that danger ought to be an inherent part of the wilderness experience, which is a position I don't endorse. I'm not saying that it's something people should necessarily shun: if you want to go backpacking without the means to call for backup that's your business [and I've done that plenty of times, so I'm not saying it's that dangerous, certainly not the way rock climbing without a rope is, for instance], but that doesn't mean that it's the only option that should be open to people. One of the great things about technology is that it makes things that were previously unsafe safer and I'm not sure that it's a great idea to force people to reject that in favor of some vision of what an authentic experience is.

The natural solution is of course to charge people for rescue (in economics rational-choice land we would charge everyone a Pigouvian tax for rescue and let them purchase insurance; back in reality, we're not going to let people die of exposure on some mountain because they won't fork over $10k for a helicopter). As I understand it, some SAR organizations charge people for rescues when it's felt that they weren't prepared enough. I'm not sure what kind of fee structure makes sense here: ideally you would scale the fee to how much the rescue cost and how unprepared people seemed to be, but maintaining that sort of system (in particular investigating exactly what people did and didn't do to prepare) seems like it's probably impractical. Maybe what's needed here is just a medium sized fee (~1-5k); enough to make people think but not enough to deter people from calling for help when they're in serious trouble.