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SPOT – The Good, the Bad and the Silly Uses for Those High-Tech Communicators


SPOT units can be a life-saver, a nice convenience for travelers, or a hassle for rescuers. It all depends on the user.

SPOT units are compact communication devices that can be used to summon help in event of an emergency in remote areas. SPOT can be a life-saving tool, but false alarms by inept users can also be a problem. Recent incidents in two parks illustrate the potential and the pitfalls of modern technology.

A previous article in the Traveler described the potential benefits of SPOT:

Officially dubbed a "Satellite GPS Messenger," this unit can be used to summon the authorities ASAP, track and store your movements, allow friends to follow you via Google Maps, and let those back home know that you could use a little assistance but that there's no emergency.

A good example of a beneficial use of SPOT occurred recently at Olympic National Park in Washington State. According to a park report,

On September 2nd, a 65-year-old man from Montesano, Washington, fell 20 feet while traversing above the Elwha Snowfinger on the Bailey Traverse. The man complained of head and back pain, so members of his party of three activated their emergency SPOT beacon.

The park had a light plane in the air doing wildfire reconnaissance at the time. It was diverted to the reported location and spotted the group of three on a steep hillside signaling for help.

Assistant Fire Management Officer Todd Rankin and ranger Mike Danisiewicz were flown close to the location by helicopter and Danisiewicz was able to scramble up the hillside to the injured man and begin an assessment. He determined that a hoist evacuation would be required due to the hazardous terrain and extent of the man’s injuries.

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station responded with a Blackhawk and flew the man to Seattle's Harbor View Hospital. He suffered no internal injuries, but required eight liters of fluid because of severe dehydration.

On the flip side of the SPOT ledger, a situation at Grand Canyon National Park confirms that some people don't understand what's required for a "911" response to a remote location. Ironically, the following incident occurred on the same day as the rescue at Olympic.

At 1:30 a.m. on the morning of September 2nd, the GEOS Emergency Response Center in Houston notified dispatch of a SPOT personal satellite tracker 911 activation that had been received from the park. The location coordinates placed the device along the Tanner Trail, approximately three miles from the trailhead.

An investigation revealed that the registered owner was associated with a backcountry permit holder who had extensive hiking experience in the park.

That "extensive hiking experience in the park" was important information, since it increased the probability that this call for help was the real deal. The park responded accordingly:

A trail response was begun at first light, just prior to the launch of the NPS helicopter with additional personnel.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the group had the extensive hiking experience of the person who obtained the backcountry permit, and that includes the person who sounded the alarm via SPOT.

A ranger arrived on scene to find three people asleep in their tents and in no need of assistance. One of the hikers, who was on her first hike into Grand Canyon, claimed to have become alarmed during the night when her group ran out of water and she subsequently heard “odd” respiratory noises emanating from the leader of the group as he slept.

At this point, the hiker decided that the group was in trouble [and] activated her SPOT messenger device.

It's a good thing those "odd respiratory noises" by the group leader didn't indicate a need for immediate help by that individual. After activating her "911" call via her SPOT unit, the inexperience hiker

...went back to sleep without making any contact with her hiking companions.

There are several potential lessons to be learned from this situation, but since my knowledge of the incident is limited to the park's brief report, I'll exercise discretion, and let you draw your own conclusions. The group's lack of water was a certainly a serious problem if they had tried to continue their hike…but not a reason to call out the cavalry.

Given their circumstance, the group made a good decision:

The group ultimately abandoned further plans for their hike and returned to the rim. The Tanner Trail is exposed, with little shade and no water for the entire nine miles of the hike to the Colorado River.

Following subsequent interviews with the involved hikers, the park decided not to take further action.

Whether devices like SPOT prove to be a boon or a bane for rescue personnel remains to be seen. The verdict is largely in the hands of the users.


Jim, This doesn't surprise me. After all, we live in a country where people will call 911 because they can't find their car keys. Your last sentence is spot on; both SPOT and EPIRB units need alert and cancel buttons. Along with GPS, these devices are tools that need a person using their brain to use them.

Yes, there needs to some some sort of verification before anyone is deployed, or we are going to have a serious "boy who called wolf" problem, and eventually it will not make sense to respond to all calls, including real emergencies.

SPOT does offer a Cancel function on both Help and 9-1-1 emergency modes. This is useful if it becomes clear that third party help is not needed. It sends a cancel message to the appropriate recipients including the emergency response center who monitors SPOT emergency signals if the 9-1-1 button was pressed.

DM -

Thanks for the information. I've modified the closing of the story in response to your comment.

I'm all for the SPOT device and its uses because I own one myself but I do agree on the "boy who cried wolf." I would of never bought one myself but was given one as a gift from my parents and absolutely love it and would recommend it to anyone venturing into the backcountry. When on vacation in Arches National Park in August 2009 the SPOT device helped me save a guys life on the Devil's Garden Primitive Loop Trail. Response time from hitting the 9-1-1 button to first Ranger on scene was two hours which is pretty good in my opinion. Thanks for the article and I can't wait to get the new version of the device!

I own a SPOT 1 and a new SPOT 2. The Spot 1 was not designed very well when it comes to the 911 button. It's just sitting there in the same row of buttons as all the others. Ultimately though, people are responsible for their own actions and need to be fined heavily for false 911 calls. My SPOT 2 has improved the 911 and help buttons a little by putting covers over both. I think SPOT should have put a tamper evident one time breakable cover over the 911 button, to emphasize the seriousness of pressing it, just like on an EPIRB. If you really need to press the 911 button, then having to send the unit back to get a new cover put on it should be no big deal.

By the way I ordered my SPOT 2 online from 9/18/09. It's said it was backordered but I placed the order anyway figuring I'd get it as soon as they were released, but I received a SPOT 2 on 9/24/09. For some reason I think REI has a jump on other vendors by having a limited supply of SPOT 2 devices now.

You can't "cancel" a 911 call. Once you call 911, the case isn't closed until an officer can verify in person that no assistance is needed. You can indicate that you want to cancel the 911, and that information may be taken into account in planning the response to your call, but the assumption is that there was a reason the call was made in the first place, and that reason needs to be investigated.

My understanding is that SPOT 911 messages are treated the same way. When I think about all the reasons why someone might press that 911 button on SPOT, legitimate or not, it seems to me that the response should ALWAYS be to escort that person out of the backcountry. Either they really do need a rescue, or they don't but were out of their depth, in which case they don't belong that far from civilization anyway (at least not without first obtaining better gear or more experience).

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