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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Beacons of life

Search-and-rescue officers laud value of emergency locator devices

Jessi Loerch Everett Herald

Lisa Jo Frech was five days into a 10-day, 170-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail near Glacier Peak when she passed out. She’s an experienced hiker, had trained hard for the trail and was feeling strong up to that point.

Oh, well, she figured, sometimes people faint.

She walked on with her hiking partner for another 81/2 miles. Then she fainted again. Soon after, when her friend handed her a water bottle, she couldn’t grasp it. The bottle slipped right through her hands.

Her hiking companion set up camp, and they spent a rough night wondering what to do. They had a SPOT, a device that can use a satellite signal to request a rescue in the wilderness. Was it time to push the button?

The next morning, it was clear Frech wasn’t up to more hiking – she was repeatedly passing out. They carefully made their way to an open area at Kennedy Creek and decided to call for help.

“I’ll just never forget feeling those words coming up like bile, saying, ‘Do it, hit the 911 button,’ ” Frech said. “It was a difficult decision, but no question, we made the right decision.”

Two-and-a-half hours after they pushed the button, the Snohomish County Helicopter Rescue Team arrived. The crew quickly determined that Frech needed advanced medical care. She and her companion were airlifted to an ambulance and transferred to a hospital. Without the SPOT, they would likely have been stuck in the backcountry for days. She is recovering but doctors are still trying to determine exactly what made her ill.

Call for help

The SPOT is just one type of device that, through a satellite connection, can call for a rescue in the backcountry.

Miles Mcdonough, a member of the Snohomish County Helicopter Rescue Team, is a huge advocate for devices. His reasons are personal as well as professional.

In 2011, Mcdonough fell while climbing on Mount Stuart in Chelan County. He suffered a concussion, broken shoulder, fractured ribs and punctured lung. His climbing partner had to leave him on the mountain while he climbed and hiked out to call for a rescue. Mcdonough spent the night on the mountain. It was 22 hours before he was in a hospital. With a beacon, he said, he could have been in an emergency room in three hours.

As a professional, Mcdonough says that beacons can help keep rescuers, as well as the rescued, safe.

Some devices offer two-way communication that can provide vital information to rescuers.

Billy “Shepherd” Hanson, who was rescued on Oct. 5 near the White Chuck River, had such a device. Hanson was hiking the PCT and needed to resupply. He followed a trail that he didn’t know was washed out. When he realized he was lost and didn’t have enough food and water to get back safely, he made the decision to press the SOS button on his DeLorme inReach, a device that links with a smartphone and is capable of two-way communication.

He told the command center he was lost and low on food and water. That information was relayed to the local search and rescue. The helicopter rescue team picked him up the next morning after deciding not to make a dangerous flight at night for an uninjured hiker.

“That saved search and rescue a lot of risk,” said Mcdonough, who was one of the rescuers on the mission.

Just a few days after Hanson’s rescue, a woman became lost while hiking the Mount Defiance Trail near Snoqualmie Pass. She did not have a beacon with her. In contrast with Hanson’s case, it took rescuers three days to find her. Ultimately, Mcdonough and his team managed to spot her just as they were heading back because the helicopter was getting low on fuel.

During the days spent looking for the hiker, many rescuers were on the ground and in the air, searching. While rescuers are signed up to do that work, the risk of something happening to a rescuer or the lost hiker grows as more people are involved and the search lengthens.

A locator beacon can also benefit the companions of an injured person. Being able to call for a rescue allows the companions to stay and care for the victim, rather than having to hike or climb out, possibly in the dark, while worried and rushed.

Only for emergencies

In 2012, Kevin Weed of Snohomish was on a multiday climbing trip in the Picket Range, a remote area in North Cascades National Park. Weed was nearly to the top of a snowfield when a chunk of snow gave way under his foot. He was unable to stop himself with his ice ax and tumbled 1,200 feet over snow and rocks. He suffered broken bones and a head injury.

No one in Weed’s party had a locator beacon, but another party nearby had a SPOT. They activated the beacon. Seven hours later, Weed was at Harborview Medical Center, where he stayed for two weeks.

Without the beacon, Weed says, “I probably would have survived, but it would have been hard on everyone.”

Two members of Weed’s climbing party were just getting ready to hike out in case the SPOT hadn’t worked when the helicopter arrived. The plan was to leave the rest of the team behind to care for Weed.

“What if it had been just two of us (in the climbing group)?” Weed said.

In that case, both the injured person and the one who had to hike out for help would be in a rough spot.

Weed now carries an ACR locator, a type of personal locator beacon. He likes it for its simplicity and reliability. Weed emphasizes that a beacon doesn’t take the place of good safety and planning. It’s just another type of good planning. Although he carries one now on his adventures, he hopes he never needs to use it.

Mcdonough was involved in the rescues with Hanson and Frech, and points out that neither of them was irresponsible. They were prepared for backcountry travel, but sometimes things go wrong. With beacons, “the overall outcome is better for the subject and can cut risk for rescuers,” Mcdonough said.

Mcdonough does emphasize that beacons are only for true emergencies. To that end, it’s important to be well-equipped with the 10 essentials, and to have taken a wilderness first-aid course. That will give you the skills to assess whether or not you truly need a rescue.

“If you take adventuring seriously, then there is really no excuse to not have one of these devices,” Mcdonough said. “If you spend enough time, you or someone else is going to need it. You simply can’t mitigate all risk.”

How they work

There are a few different types of emergency locator beacons. All work using GPS and are capable of sending out SOS messages. If you push the emergency button, a command center is contacted with your location and personal information – entered online when you register your device. The center then contacts local authorities to begin the process of organizing a rescue.

Satellite messengers, such as the SPOT or DeLorme, require a subscription, on top of the cost of the device. They offer more features than personal locator beacons. You can set up tracking and custom messages so your family or friends can know you’re OK. The DeLorme allows two-way communication. Prices start around $150 for SPOT, $300 for DeLorme; subscription prices vary.

Personal locator beacons like the ACR use the military satellite system – a more extensive system than satellite messengers. The beacons require a one-time fee with no subscription. They are considered to be very reliable. They don’t offer tracking for families or friends. Unlike satellite messengers, they also emit a localized signal, which can help rescuers pinpoint your precise location. Costs start around $280.

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