Everybody has one now and they are taking the search out of the search and rescue business. Remember the big search mounted last year for three mountaineers on Mt. Hood and how much hope was placed on the ability to find them by “pinging” one of their cell phones. The problem I saw with cellular phones from a public safety standpoint was that if a reporting party had service in the backcountry it was usually weak and spotty. If they could get a call out the bigger issue soon became a dying battery. By the time we got the call, usually late in the day or at night, they were running out of juice. Upgraded technology is helping to locate people faster but it still comes down to coverage. The bottom line is that if you are going to rely on cellular for your wilderness communications, you better make sure that you have coverage and that your battery is fully charged or carry a spare that is fully charged. If cell coverage is not available then you have a decision to make: gamble or step up to the next level of comms device.
As a SAR Tech-EMT on the Sheriff’s helicopter I found myself being dropped off in the most remote parts of our county. I typically carried two radios on my Tac-Vest 1B Utility vest from Tactical Tailor, a VHF portable for direct comms with the helicopter and our dispatcher when I could hit a repeater and a UHF medical radio to patch with our base hospital. Even with that set up I was out of communications most of the time if the helo had to leave the scene. The remedy was a GSP1600 handheld satellite phone from Globalstar. It is a little on the large side but lightweight, and has a very good battery life. Regardless of how remote I was, as long as I had a partial view of the southern sky, I could always place a telephone call successfully. It worked beautifully. The GSP1600, by the way, also has dual mode cellular capability. The phone itself determines the strongest signal and chooses the best system to use. It is a nice piece of equipment.
I have recently upgraded to the new GSP1700 which is much smaller and lighter but it does not have the cellular capability. I really like the phone but the service has become a real problem. About a year and half ago, Globalstar began reporting problems with a type of antenna on their first generation satellites. It is complicated but it had something to do with the UV rays in space damaging the satellites and degrading their performance much faster than expected. In any event I began to notice slower and slower signal acquisition times and dropped calls, something I did not experience before. At the same time I was hearing from the guys on the Team that they were having the same problems with their five phones. Well, the problem has been getting worse despite efforts by Globalstar to fix the problem by putting up replacement first generation satellites. They just put up two new birds and it has helped but the service is not as good as it was. According to Globalstar, the problem will not be fully resolved until 2009 when their second generation constellation is in place.
So, you have a choice, go with Globalstar at a discounted cost and put up with less than optimal service for a couple years or try Iridium which is the only other service I would consider.
I have not personally used Iridium but when I did my original research several years ago, Globalstar was by far the better system. Conclusion. Sat phones are very effective for wilderness comms and Globalstar is still my preferred provider, for now, but that could change soon.
Two Way Radios
For 14 years I used the same 16 channel VHF Motorola HT1000 two way radio. It is an outstanding piece of equipment and it served me very well without a single problem. There are professional grade batteries, earpieces, microphones, interfaces and headsets available to make this the perfect radio for your specialized application. Motorola now offers newer more advanced radios, which I am not as crazy about, but the HT1000 family of radios is still what I like. If you need a bulletproof, no nonsense, two way that you can depend on, go with the Moto HT1000 in UHF or VHF even if you have to get it off of eBay.
The Walk About family of FRS/GMRS radios from Motorola opened up a whole new world of wireless communications to the masses. I would have traded a finger for a set of these when I was a kid. I like the T5820s but there are many newer models available now. I suggest that your go with one that has both FRS and GMRS frequencies and runs on regular batteries, not the rechargeable ones. Why? I can carry extra batts into the field and change them quickly when I need to. The T9500 model offered by Cabela’s runs on both kinds of batteries and includes NOAA weather channels.
Let me give you two warnings about these radios and it goes for all FRS/GMRS radios regardless of manufacturer. First, the working ranges dreamed up by the marketing gurus are highly suspect. They are best case scenarios and you are not likely to achieve the same results. These types of radios operate on line of sight which means if there is something substantial between you and me, our ability to communicate is hindered. Second, there is no generally accepted emergency channel nor is there any public safety agency that I know of monitoring the frequencies that these radios operate on. So you cannot rely on these radios to bail you out of a jam by making contact with the authorities. I hope this changes soon; I know some ski areas designate certain channels for customer assistance.
If you carry one of these radios in the field make sure to include your frequency and the radio make and model on the “flight plan” that you should always leave with a responsible person. Again, these are inexpensive, handy little radios but don’t rely on them to save your bacon.
A note about VHF and UHF radios. Make sure you look into licensing requirements and frequency availability before you start using them.
Personal Locator Beacons aka PLBs
So what can you rely on? Well, as I have said, the sat phones are good but it might take you a little time and several tries to make contact with somebody but you are going to have to know who to call and then tell them what the problem is and where you are. The nice thing about a sat phone conversation is that you have the ability to communicate exactly what you need. With that information properly equipped emergency services can be alerted and dispatched. However, there are many situations where you may have only one chance to initiate an emergency distress call.
That is the only problem with a PLB. The communication is one way only and it is limited but it is very dependable, requires no maintenance once activated and runs for about 40 hours straight. Even though they are a little heavy, the ACR units are solid, well designed and reliable. ACR has been making distress signal equipment for the military for more than 40 years.
So, there is no one perfect communications device. For each situation you have to consider the mitigating circumstances and pick the right combination of devices.
UPDATE – Please see my articles on the second generation SPOT and the Iridium Satellite Telephone, I am now recommending both.
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