On July 23 Teton County Idaho Search and Rescue received its first call out in months: the Teton County Sheriff’s Office had received an SOS message from someone’s satellite messenger device in the Big Holes. That evening, 15 members of the volunteer crew hustled to headquarters at the old armory to be briefed on the situation.
People who spend time in remote areas often carry satellite messengers because they work worldwide, don’t require cell service, and have long-lasting batteries. In an emergency, the device will send an SOS signal and a victim’s location to rescue agencies.
“We are obligated to investigate and mobilize for all SOS calls,” explained Mitch Golden, the administration manager at the sheriff’s office. Once dispatch received the call, it was forwarded to TCISAR.
Lead SAR advisor Jason O’Neill communicated with a representative from the International Emergency Response Coordination Center, who provided the subject’s GPS coordinates as well as basic personal information and an emergency contact. Team members worked to plot points from the signal onto a map in the Temple Peak area in the Thousand Springs Valley of the Big Hole range. They were a bit puzzled by the information; the subject, a dirt biker in his mid-50s, was still moving around, not the way a seriously injured person would behave, and eventually settled outside of TCISAR’s jurisdiction, in Madison County, at what one volunteer noted was a pretty nice campsite.
Because the team members suspected the call might be a false alarm, they did not go into the field. They stayed in a holding pattern ready to respond if something changed, and in less than two hours a Madison County deputy located the man, who was indeed at camp, and confirmed his well being.
The dirt biker had an older SPOT device that didn’t have any method of communication besides an SOS signal. It had been jostled in his pack and the emergency button was somehow tripped. New models offer a wider suite of options, including constant tracking, pre-programmed messages, and two-way communication.
O’Neill noted that with the growing popularity of these devices, false alarms happen in the Teton region a couple times per year.
“It’s a great piece of technology,” O’Neill said. “But it needs to be checked often to confirm it’s working and not sending out a signal. We need to be treating them more like avalanche beacons—you wouldn’t just throw your avy beacon in the bottom of your backpack and forget about it.”
This spring during the Community Foundation of Teton Valley competitive grant cycle, TCISAR received funds to purchase four Garmin inReach satellite messengers. The devices will provide the team members with a more reliable way to track each other and communicate during missions.
O’Neill added that Teton County Wyoming SAR’s recently released smart phone app, Backcountry SOS, can serve the same purpose as a satellite messenger device as long as the victim has enough cell service and battery life to send a text. The app generates a message with essential information and GPS coordinates that can be sent to any 911 call center that is set up to receive text messages (including both Teton County, Wyoming and Idaho).
Even though the SOS call turned out to be an accident, O’Neill said he was glad it happened.
“We don’t mind responding to calls like this,” he said. “It’s great training and we have a lot of new people on the team, so it’s good for them to see the systems and organization that go on for a response.”