Last winter, big mountain skier Cody Townsend and filmmaker Bjarne Salen were heading back to the trailhead after successfully climbing and skiing Joffrey Couloir near Pemberton, British Columbia when they saw something come tumbling down from the next gully over.
“It looked like rockfall or a big bird at first, I couldn’t quite tell because we were far away. Then I realized that it was a human,” Townsend says. “I saw his pack come off and kinda bounce off some rocks and off a cliff, then he tomahawked at a high rate of speed through the apron, probably another 500 vertical feet out the exit of the couloir.”
Positioned about 1,500 feet below the fall, Salen flew his drone up to evaluate the condition of the fallen man. What they saw on the screen was grim. There was a lot of blood, the guy had no goggles or gloves, and he looked dazed. He was in dire need of help.
It was about 3:45 PM, and being February, daylight was fading fast. The burden had fallen on Townsend and Salen and they had to act quickly. Townsend was carrying a Garmin InReach satellite communicator but decided against pressing the SOS button.
“We discussed a few options and decided it was best to have Bjarne go up there to help him, while I went for a helicopter to get immediate evacuation,” Townsend said. “I knew there was cell service a short drive back towards town, so my goal was to just get to the car as quick as possible.”
When he did find reception, Townsend called a local helicopter touring company he had a connection with to explain the situation and ask them to get a chopper ready to launch. Then he called 911 and relayed the exact GPS coordinates to dispatch. Two helicopters were mobilized. The fallen climber and Salen were extracted from Joffrey Peak at 5:45 PM. The climber was transferred to a trauma hospital in Vancouver.
Time is never on your side in an emergency, especially in the backcountry. Townsend decided to find cell service instead of using the SOS button in that instance was best because speaking directly to another person would allow him to better articulate details to emergency services.
“I wanted to pass on the knowledge that we have an emergency, but we also have someone else in the field [Salen] not prepared to spend the night out there. He might do it because he is going to hug this guy until he maybe dies—that is going to put Salen in a risky situation as well. With an InReach you’d be communicating through text and they aren’t necessarily fast,” Townsend said. “I just knew I’d have better control of the situation if I could talk to the people coordinating the rescue.”
But it’s rare to have access to cell service in the backcountry like Townsend did. Which raises the question: What if he’d pressed the SOS button instead? What actually happens when you call for help with a PLB or a device like the InReach?
Distress beacons can be divided into two camps, personal locator beacons (PLB)’s and satellite messengers. “PLB” (personal locator beacons) and “satellite messengers” are not interchangeable terms for the same device. Both use satellite networks to disseminate distress calls around the globe; however, PLB’s utilize the Cospas Sarsat satellite constellation, which is maintained by governments around the world, while satellite messengers connect to private satellite networks—Iridium for InReach, and Globalstar for SPOT. Crucially, satellite messengers allow the user to send, and with some models, receive messages.
Cospas Sarsat monitors its satellite network for calls from PLBs, as well as maritime and aviation beacons free of charge, and the infrastructure is subsidized by governments around the world, while satellite messengers come with a monthly bill to maintain the service—exclusive of the cost of an actual rescue, which can range from nothing to well over $10,000. (Who actually pays for that is variable depending on many factors. If the NPS manages the rescue, or the Coast Guard, for example, they assume the cost. Or, rather, taxpayers do. If it’s a volunteer-based SAR mission, or one coordinated by local law enforcement, who bears the cost can depend on which state it’s in, and what resources are involved. It’s unfortunately not a simple answer).
Pressing the SOS button on a PLB sends a signal out on the 406mhz frequency, eventually alerting one of the 35 Cospas Sarsat Mission Control Centers around the world.
“When you activate the beacon, the satellite detects the beacon, the beacon message is transferred to the LUT (Local User Terminal/antennae), and then the LUT transfers the beacon message and associated location information to the Mission Control Center,” explains Cheryl Bertoia, the Principal Operations Officer of the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme.
According to Bertoia, the unique identification number of each beacon is supposed to be registered to its owner and also has a country code, similar to the country code attached to a phone number. Each nation keeps its own registry of active PLBs and that country code tells the Mission Control Center where to look for information on that device, so the local SAR knows somebody is in trouble in their area, and at least a little about them.
“This message will then go to two places. One will go to the US—because you will have bought a US coded beacon it will be registered in the US, and the US SAR forces will activate. But say you’re forced to activate your beacon in Patagonia, Chile. We will send the second alert to what we call the search and rescue point of contact for Chile who will then distribute the appropriate alert internally within Chile and initiate rescue coordination.”
For inland rescue in the US, Cospas Sarsat sends this notification to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.
“So it (an alert) shows up on one of the AFRCC consoles, and it has the PLB serial number, and hopefully the person has updated their contact information,” explains Pat Caulfield, the Vice President of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association and Commander and Team Commander of Fremont Colorado Search and Rescue. “Generally the AFRCC will try and contact whoever is listed on the PLB, mainly to see if it is a valid activation—most activations aren’t. Usually, somebody bumped it and turned it on, or threw it away and didn’t pull the battery out.”
If the AFRCC can’t establish contact with the beacon’s owner, they call the relevant state’s SAR and relay information like the GPS coordinates, whether or not the beacon still active, and if the PLB is moving, among other things.
“If it plots out in the type of environment we would expect to see a valid activation, the state SAR coordinator contacts the local sheriff to work out what search and rescue resources are in their county. Even in a place like Colorado, not every county has a search and rescue team,” says Caulfield.
While this is happening, the state SAR coordinator is also trying to get in touch with emergency contacts and is getting any other information they can from the beacon’s registration. In the United States, every PLB owner is required by law to register their device and to input basic location and contact information. Most people don’t bother to do this.
“A lot of times we are contacting people to tell them their device is activated and they say, ‘oh, I sold it on Craigslist.’ It is pretty often that we are going out to do a rescue on someone and we don’t know who we are going out for,” Caulfield says.
But a satellite messaging device, unlike a PLB, provides far more information right off the bat. These devices require monthly subscriptions, so your current information is available quickly.
“When we get an activation signal for a SPOT device or an InReach, generally we have much more information,” Caulfied says.
Satellite messengers like InReach, SPOT, Bivystick, and others which utilize private satellite networks, send SOS calls to the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center in Montgomery Texas, regardless of where they are activated.
“We monitor and coordinate resources worldwide, and we actually monitor a number of different satellite communicators and satellite phones,” says Emily Thomson, the Operations Research and Development Manager at the GEOS IRRC. “When someone activates the SOS on their satellite messenger it will come into our monitoring system with their profile information and coordinates. Since it’s a two-way device[not all messengers are, however] we’re able to communicate with them about their emergency, and as soon as we receive the alert in our system with the coordinates, we will immediately dispatch emergency services based on their location.”
With the ability to confirm whether or not an activation is valid, and to glean details about the emergency and the GPS information, GEOS skips a step in coordinating the rescue.
“For the United States, we will coordinate with the county sheriff department, or if they are in a national park, we will coordinate with the national park dispatch,” Thomson explains. “If it’s international, it will be the rescue coordination center for the country that the device activated was in, so we will coordinate the rescue with them.”
When a call gets to this point in the chain of events, the SAR apparatus is in full swing with teams evaluating the resources they will need to get you home safe. How long that takes can be compounded by everything from weather, to tree cover.
“If I have a hunter who is half a mile from a road and they’ve activated their device, that’s a lot easier than someone who is 20 miles into the backcountry where we might need sno-cats and snowmobiles, and have to get those resources out to the location,” says Thomson.
Every rescue is different and having an understanding of the gears that must fall into place to get you home safe if you’re hurt in the backcountry is important, not only so you can make better decisions about initiating a rescue, but also so you can give SAR teams the best chance of finding you.
Both Bertoia and Caulfield stressed the importance of registering your PLB and keeping the information in the system up to date, especially if you sell the device or give it to someone else.
Caulfield also says if you’re disposing of your PLB, make sure to take the battery out, or if you can’t get it out, wrap the beacon in multiple layers of aluminum foil so if it is activated, the signal will be blocked, and your local SAR won’t be chasing a garbage truck around town—which Caulfield says he’s done. He also stresses if you do activate your beacon by accident, and you have cell service, call the AFRCC or your State Search and Rescue Coordinator and let them know; there is no penalty for an accidental activation and it saves everyone involved a LOT of work.
Caulfield’s last tip is if you have cellphone service or can get to it easily, don’t activate your beacon or satellite communicator—call 911. Just like Townsend did.
Top Photo: Tim Dennert