GPS: How to Stay Alive in the Wild

Rescuers say a small GPS locator can make all the difference

June 8, 2007 — -- With summer fast approaching, people are hitting the road and heading to their favorite outdoor vacation destinations — lakes, mountains and forests. But a good time outdoors can turn bad very quickly if people find themselves lost or suffer some sort of injury that requires immediate attention. A quick response from rescue services can mean life or death in some situations.

Last December, three climbers went missing on Oregon's Mount Hood. Two of the climbers survived, but the third climber died. None of the climbers were carrying any sort of tracking system with them, making the rescue attempt go on for days.

In a separate incident that month James Kim was found dead of hypothermia on an Oregon mountain road after he had gone seeking help for himself and his family when they were stranded during a blizzard. Like the Mount Hood climbers, the Kim family was without a GPS device.

Could these deaths have been prevented if the parties had a GPS device with them? In an effort to decrease tragic wilderness events and improve rescue time when someone gets lost, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is encouraging outdoors enthusiasts to purchase locator devices in case they become lost or have an accident.

NOAA Sarsat Operations Officer Lt. Jeff Shoup said these locators can help rescue people who are lost in a forest, or find an aircraft that has crashed. Shoup said in this day and age with cell phone coverage, it's still common for people to lose cell phone reception, especially when out in the wilderness.

"Once you start hiking and you get away from the highways, you run into areas that are dead really quick," he said. "Even a mile or two out you can run into issues."

But with a personal locator beacon, which is light and can easily be thrown into a backpack, anyone can relay a message to a satellite, and with that GPS beacon the person can be located within five minutes and have searchers on the way for them.

"Summer's a prime time for people to go out and get themselves into trouble," Shoup said. "This year already we've saved more than 170 people or rescued 170 people and we're not even halfway through the year. So we're looking at a busy summer we think."

Shoup said NOAA has registered 1,000 devices in the database almost every month, which means more and more people are getting them and that means more and more alerts.

NOAA has two different types of satellites used for GPS locators. The first is a geostationary satellite that has constant coverage over Earth. It constantly looks down on Earth but has no locator abilities because it's stationary unless there's a GPS location that a beacon could give it. The other is a polar-orbiting satellite that constantly circles the poles as Earth rotates underneath it and can get constant coverage from it. This satellite takes about 90 minutes to orbit Earth.

"We use the polar orbiting satellites to get a location for you and the geostationary to get an alert," said Shoup.

Anyone who wants to purchase a locator device can do so at specialty outdoor stores. A personal locator sells for about $350 to $650, depending on the model, and anyone who purchases a locator has to register it with NOAA.

Shoup said this is done to cancel false alerts. He explained that false alerts can happen all the time if the beacon is activated by accident but said if they receive a call and it's a false alert, they can cancel it in one phone call without sending anyone out, saving money and not jeopardizing lives.

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