As some may be aware (if not, review trip report titled “Pike’s Peak or Bust”), I had used my SPOT tracking device to summon for emergency help. It took longer than I would have expected to be located. After some research, I felt it was important to pass some of this information along.
Granted I was in a remote area, but I was in the United States (New Mexico, about 35 miles north of Grants). I was not down in some ditch or on a goat path in the middle of a forest. It took a over 19 hours for me to be located. I had only injured ribs so my situation was not life treating, so I am addressing this more from a “what if” type scenario. What if I had been bleeding or needed immediate medical attention? If that had been the situation, I fear that I may not have been here to write this.
What lessons can be learned from my experience that may minimize the risk for a life threatening emergency in a remote area. Did the SPOT fail or is the SPOT of minimal use. Are the risks of solo riding in remote areas greater then we may have thought?
In my case, the SPOT did not fail and did what it was supposed to do. The delay was caused by some other circumstances that we all need to be aware of before we head out on our next adventure. The SPOT, as stated, did what it was supposed to do, but yet if you are depending of the SPOT for your rescue, you may be disappointed (or dead). I strongly recommend that everyone that travels should carry a SPOT with them. It is extremely useful, but not a magic button and don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security
For some background, SPOT rescue operations are handled by a company called GEOS International Emergency Response Center (IERC). If the 911/SOS button is pressed, The SPOT folks do not even see it, that message goes directly to IERC. IERC’s job is to contact the appropriate officials and coordinate the rescue operation. After I returned home, I was able to talk with the IERC person that handled my case.
I will now attempt to describe some of the other circumstances.
Accuracy of the Spot?
In my situation, the coordinates that my SPOT had transmitted were: 35.55553, -107.50142. If you take those cords and input them to Google Maps. Switch to satellite imagery and zoom in, you will see the road CR-19 with the map marker right by the beginning of a ravine. It was surprising how accurate that was. That is exactly where I was. I recognize that ravine and I spent a considerable time laying/sitting right next to it. So what was the cause of the delay? Why the difficulty in finding me if the SPOT location is accurate? Some of the contributing factors follow.
Acceptance of responsibility / jurisdiction and inadequately trained personnel.
There was some dispute between counties as to whose jurisdiction I was in and who had to fool with me or was I on Indian Reservation Land and it was their problem. The first dispatch office contacted did not even know how to input GPS coordinates into Google Maps. One county agreed to send someone out to search for me. He (or they) returned later that afternoon and reported that I was not at that location. IERC informed them that I was still sending help messages from the same location, so they therefore did not go to the right location. IERC gave them not only GPS coordinates but road intersection information. On CR-19 south of Indian Route 728 and persuaded them to go try again. They claimed they went out again, but returned with the same report that I was not at that location. Oh by the way. On the second or third attempt the sheriff deputy reported that they brought a small hand held GPS. What! You mean they had been attempting to find my GPS coordinates without a GPS! Isn’t that scary? And they reported that I was not at that location. How would they know?
By morning IERC had lost faith in the local sheriff’s office and elevated my recovery to the New Mexico State Police.
Around mid morning, the state police dispatched a helicopter assuming that I must be someplace where I could not be seen from the ground. The helicopter went to the GPS coordinates provided and guess what? There I was. He marked my location by circling above (I wish I had gotten a picture, it was cool). Then came a state cruiser followed by an entourage (the cavalry). Some folks loaded my bike in their truck and I rode back in with the trouper (do they call them troupers in NM?). Anyway, it was interesting that the trouper did not have a working GPS and was only using Google maps he had printed out.
Two lessons to take away from this.
1. Just because we may carry a SPOT and modern GPS equipment does not mean that those we would rely on for our recovery do. In some smaller counties, the cost of a GPS may not be in their budget. If they do have a GPS it may be a cheap old unit.
2. What importance do local authorities pay to some outside person crazy enough to ride/hike, etc. in remote areas? I’m not a local; I don’t vote or contribute to this locality. How do they feel about an outsider drawing on what may be very limited resources? I’m not saying that such a felling is right, but I do understand it and suspect that could have played a role.
Not all GPS coordinates are created equal.
A GPS coordinate is a GPS coordinate, right? Not so! This I just recently became aware of and this issue may have played a very significant part in the delay. My understanding is very limited so I may misstate some details, but let me attempt to explain. First off there is this thing called a GPS datum. A GPS datum is a set of reference points on the Earth’s surface against which position measurements are made, one could think of the datum as a map set. If two GPS systems are utilizing different datum (map set), they may represent the same location differently. Unless your GPS is very old this should not make a significant difference, but it would be a little off. The most common datum in use currently is something called WGS84. That is the datum SPOT uses, so if your GPS is not set to use WGS84 datum, you may be off a little bit.
A more significant difference is the coordinate format. Is your device using decimal format or the degree, minutes, seconds format or do you even know? I didn’t.
The Spot tracker gives the numbers in degrees and decimal portions of degrees, while your GPS may be in a format reads degrees, minutes, and decimal portions of minutes. There are 60 minutes in a degree, so if your GPS were to read 35′ 30″ (35 degrees and 30 minutes), on a reading from the Spot it would show up as 35.5000 degrees. And the difference can be significant. Were those looking for me aware of the difference? I doubt it. I had never thought about it. If I were to enter my location into something that was expecting degree format my coordinates would have been accepted as 35 55.553, -107 50.142 and that location would have been about 50 miles from my actual location of 35.55553, -107.50142.
I have a Garmin Zumo and by default it was set for coordinates to be in degree, minute, seconds format and not decimal format. Somewhere deep in you GPS settings, you have the option to set format and datum. It is very important that you change your setting to be WGS84 datum and decimal format. You may need to find someone and you need to be singing from the same song sheet.
Based on my event, there was a post made on ADV rider that you change your non-emergency SPOT help message to read something like:
“’This is a HELP message. It is not serious. My location is shown in decimal degrees WGS84 datum. Set GPS same.’ As far as the emergency button, you don’t have any control of the message, you just hope that the receiving officials have better training then the ones in McKinley County, New Mexico.
Other suggestions for your SPOT device.
For non-emergency button you have the ability to specify the receivers of the message, so make sure there are folks on your receiver list that are familiar with websites such as ADV rider or Two Wheeled Texas. With the failure of the local first responders, I was also periodically sending my custom non-emergency help buttons. I also had it set up to post that entry to my blog as well as folks on my receiver list. This caused folks to make posts to TWT and ADV with my brother, Hap, posting updated information he had from IERC. Before the day was out, about 400 fellow riders where monitoring the progress and these in the area were preparing load up and come find me. It was two riders out of Albuquerque that loaded up and came to search for me. The “brotherhood” of fellow riders is awesome. While the state helicopter did find me, I now have far more faith in fellow riders coming to assist then I do local authorities. The only delay in them not coming the previous day was that they were under the impression that local authorities had already been dispatched and surely they could find me because they had my exact GPS coordinates.
Also be aware that while the SPOT did allow me to send a non-emergency message, all other messages are ignored if there is an active 911 call. I had attempted to send a signal for roadside assistance. Frankly at that point, it would have been just fine to ride out with a tow truck, pack mule – ANYTHING. My roadside assistance call was ignored because I still had an active 911. I had thought that if I simply turned the SPOT device off and then turn it back on again, that would cancel the 911 call. Not so. The only way that a 911 call can be canceled is to hold the 911 button down for 10 seconds until it starts to blink red. Then it takes up to 15 minutes for satellites to be acquired before the message is send. The 911 call has not been canceled until the red light stops blinking. At that point, you can do other tasks such as signal for roadside assistance.
I guess I am now an expert on SPOT, so if anyone has any questions, please feel free to contact me.