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Utah Travel Headlines

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Misuse Of Technology Creates Problems For Backcountry Rescuers

Electronic devices, used properly, can make backcountry travel safer and more enjoyable. GPS systems, cell phones, satellite phones and other devices can help people stay out of trouble, and can facilitate rescue in emergency situations.

But the devices sometimes give people a false sense of security that can lead to trouble, according to this interesting NY Times article. Technology also sometimes allows people to call for help for ridiculous reasons, tying up resources and wasting time and money. Below are excerpts from the article.

People with cellphones call rangers from mountaintops to request refreshments or a guide; in Jackson Hole, Wyo., one lost hiker even asked for hot chocolate.

A French teenager was injured after plunging 75 feet this month from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon when he backed up while taking pictures. And last fall, a group of hikers in the canyon called in rescue helicopters three times by pressing the emergency button on their satellite location device. When rangers arrived the second time, the hikers explained that their water supply “tasted salty.”

“Because of having that electronic device, people have an expectation that they can do something stupid and be rescued,” said Jackie Skaggs, spokeswoman for Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

In an extreme instance in April, two young men from Las Vegas were killed in Zion National Park in Utah while trying to float a hand-built log raft down the Virgin River. A park investigation found that the men “did not have whitewater rafting experience, and had limited camping experience, little food and no overnight gear.”

“They told their father that they intended to record their entire trip on video camera as an entry into the ‘Man vs. Wild’ competition” on television, investigators wrote.

Far more common but no less perilous, park workers say, are visitors who arrive with cellphones or GPS devices and little else — sometimes not even water — and find themselves in trouble. Such visitors often acknowledge that they have pushed themselves too far because they believe that in a bind, the technology can save them.

One of the most frustrating new technologies for the parks to deal with, rangers say, are the personal satellite messaging devices that can send out an emergency signal but are not capable of two-way communication. (Globalstar Inc., the manufacturer of SPOT brand devices, says new models allow owners to send a message with the help request.)

In some cases, said Keith Lober, the ranger in charge of search and rescue at Yosemite National Park in California, the calls “come from people who don’t need the 911 service, but they take the SPOT and at the first sign of trouble, they hit the panic button.”

But without two-way communication, the rangers cannot evaluate the seriousness of the call, so they respond as if it were an emergency.

Read the entire article.

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