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The Use And Misuse Of The SPOT Satellite Messenger

I've been an active Search & Rescue volunteer since 2007 with the Coconino County Sheriff's SAR Team in northern Arizona.

A One-Way Call for Help

Imagine someone calling 9-1-1 from a remote area of the Grand Canyon because the water they filtered tastes kind of salty, setting in motion a risky rescue operation.

Or what about placing the emergency call because your guide is making strange noises in his sleep ... without even trying to wake him first?

Sound ridiculous? Maybe so, but these things really did happen, not with a cell phone with two-way communication but with a SPOT Satellite Messenger, where the recipient of the distress signal couldn't ask any questions.

By the same token, legitimately lost, stranded and injured people have used the SPOT to contact Search and Rescue teams like the one I'm on, and lives have been saved as a result.

Here, I'll tell you a little about the device and how it works, and how the technology has been used and misused in the backcountry. And then I'd like for you to tell me what you think of this technology, whether you've used it or not.

I should be clear that I do not own a SPOT Satellite Messenger. My connection to this subject and technology is that I'm a Search and Rescue volunteer. I do have friends and SAR teammates who own the device about which I've had some discussion with them.


What It Is and How It Works

This is basically a portable GPS device that can send pre-programmed, outgoing messages and its current coordinates to the user's family and friends and to emergency responders if necessary.

The SPOT operates on the same satellite system that all GPS units use, not on the cell phone system. So it can work in areas where there is no cell phone reception.

It cannot receive messages, though, and the user can't customize the messages sent while in the field.

The SPOT is supposed to operate anywhere in the world -- that is, anywhere it has a line-of-sight to a Globalstar satellite. The device will repeat emergency messages at pre-set intervals until the user cancels the emergency, turns off the device, or the batteries run out.

The Kinds of Messages You Can Send With SPOT

The device can send different types of messages. These messages are sent to e-mail addresses specified by the account-holder, with the option of sending SMS messages within the United States.

The text can be customized by the user but, as I said, cannot be changed while in the field. This means, the user can't send details about an emergency or "help needed" situation.

But the device CAN:

  • Transmit a location to predetermined contacts, such as family members and friends (aka "checking in"). This allows the user to keep contacts up to date on the user's progress and coordinates at the time of the manual check-in.
  • Request help from predetermined contacts. This function is a pre-set, non-emergency message. This may be used when, for example, someone is stranded for some reason but not in distress and not injured.
  • Alert 911 to dispatch emergency Search and Rescue responders to the device's location. Pressing the recessed 911 button sends this message to the GEOS Emergency Response Center in Houston, Texas, which then contacts the appropriate local SAR organization.
  • Automatically track the device's progress, periodically transmitting and saving its location to view on Google Maps. This requires the account holder to have purchased the optional continuous tracking subscription.

See what a SPOT e-mail or SMS notification looks like on

The International Emergency Rescue Coordination Center (IERCC) is an independent operation. SPOT, which is owned by GlobalStar, contracts with IERCC, owned by the GEOS Alliance, to provide the emergency alerting services. IERCC provides alerting services for other devices as well.

An optional insurance plan -- around $8 per year -- covers private search and rescue costs, such as helicopter extraction, up to $100,000. (Keep in mind that the vast majority of Search and Rescue teams in the United States do NOT charge for their assistance. It's usually only private medical transport helicopter companies that charge.)

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More About the SPOT

The SPOT takes two AA lithium batteries and has a battery life of up to one year while in standby mode, 14 days in SpotCasting mode, or 7 days in 911 mode. It's also water resistant.

In addition to buying the SPOT, a service plan is required. An optional tracking function can be purchased as well as Roadside Assistance for additional fees.

A Video About The Spot Messenger - A very positive overview of the device

Do You Carry A SPOT?

The SPOT Satellite Messenger in Grand Canyon National Park

The SPOT Satellite Messenger in Grand Canyon National Park

A 911 from the Tanner Trail

Grand Canyon National Park

At 1:30 a.m. on September 2nd, 2009, the GEOS Emergency Response Center in Houston, Texas, notified Grand Canyon dispatch that a SPOT 911 activation had been received from the Park. The coordinates transmitted by the device placed it along the Tanner Trail, about 3 miles from the trailhead on the South Rim. The Tanner Trail has very little shade and no water for its entire 9 miles down to the Colorado River.

Investigation revealed that the registered owner of the device was on a trip with a permit-holder who had extensive hiking experience in the Canyon. At dawn, a Park ranger started down the trail just before an NPS helicopter was launched with additional personnel. The ranger on foot arrived on the scene to find three people asleep in their tents and no one in need of assistance.

One of the hikers, on her first backcountry trip into the Canyon, said she'd become worried during the night when her group ran out of water and she then heard what she described as "odd respiratory noises" coming from the group leader while he slept. At that point, the hiker decided that the group was in trouble and activated her SPOT messenger device. The she immediately went back to sleep without letting her hiking companions know what she'd done and without ever attempting to wake the leader.

Upon finding out about the 911 activation, the group decided to forgo the rest of their planned hike and return to the rim. After interviewing the hikers, the Park decided not to take any further action.

The SPOT Satellite Messenger in Grand Canyon National Park

The SPOT Satellite Messenger in Grand Canyon National Park

Another Grand Canyon 911 Activation

Emergency on the Royal Arch Loop (?)

On the evening of September 23rd, 2009, Grand Canyon Park rangers began a search for hikers on the remote Royal Arch Loop, who activated their rented SPOT satellite tracking device. The GEOS Emergency Response Center in Houston reported that someone in the group of four - two men and their two teenage sons - had pressed the SPOT's "Help" button.

Due to darkness and the remoteness of the location indicated by the SPOT coordinates, rangers were unable to reach them by helicopter until the next morning. When the hikers were located, they'd moved about a mile and a half to a water source. They declined rescue, since they'd activated the device due to their lack of water.

Later that same evening, the same device was activated, this time using the "911" button. The coordinates placed them less than a quarter mile from the location where the searchers had found them that morning. But again, darkness prevented a response by a Park helicopter, so an Arizona DPS helicopter whose crew used night vision goggles was brought in. When the group was found, they said they were concerned about possible dehydration because the water they'd found tasted salty. The helicopter crew turned down the group's request for a night evacuation but did give them water before they left.

The next morning, another "help" activation came in from the same group. This third time, they were flown out by Park helicopter, and all four refused medical assessment or treatment.

Apparently, the group's leader had hiked once before in Grand Canyon, but the other adult had no Grand Canyon hiking experience and very little backpacking experience in general. When asked what they would have done without the SPOT device, the leader said,"We would have never attempted this hike."

The group leader was issued a citation by the Park for creating a hazardous condition.

Another 911 Signal from SPOT

This time from Prince George, British Colombia

On October 17th, 2009, a thousand-pound boulder fell on a man in a cave. The other members of his group were able to get him out from under the boulder and activated the SPOT device that had been set at the entrance to the cave. Search and Rescue then sent two helicopters to the scene, and the five rescuers aboard began working on extricating the injured man to the surface. This took three hours to accomplish.

In the meantime, a ground unit was hiking in to the scene to help carry the victim out. It was 4 a.m. the next morning before they were able to get him to a place where he could be hoisted out. In all, about 60 rescuers--all but four being volunteers--were involved, some of whom sustained minor injuries during the mission.

The victim was said to have 7 fractured ribs on the right side of his chest and 3 on the left, a fractured left clavicle, a fractured right clavicle, and crushed fingers on his left hand.

And Another SPOT Emergency Call

In the Ozark National Forest, Arkansas

In October, 2009, a photographer who fell 30 feet from the top of a waterfall used his SPOT 911 button to call for help.

Dozens of mostly volunteer rescuers took 20 hours to reach the man and then bring him up a mountain to a cemetery, where a vehicle met them. The injured photographer was then transported to a clearing where a helicopter could land and take him for treatment of numerous broken bones.

An Interview On NPR About GPS Tracking Devices Like This One

with Matt Scharper, Search and Rescue operations coordinator for the state of California

Quotes from Matt Scharper:

"[T]hat's the unfortunate thing about these devices because the concept itself is absolutely great. The problem is that people are taking chances, people are taking risks that they wouldn't normally take had they not had these devices on their person."

"[W]hen they push the help button or the 911 button - we have no idea what the emergency is, and it's just like a 911 hang-up call. We don't know what it is, so we're vested with a response to get in there, see what the problem is and take care of it."

Read the full interview from NPR's All Things Considered with Robert Siegel on

Now You Can Send Short Text Messages With SPOT Connect

Don't leave people guessing. Give more information with additional messaging capability.

New technology works with the SPOT to allow for customized text messages to be sent from the user to family, friends and Search & Rescue

The SPOT Connect pairs with certain smartphone and other mobile devices via Bluetooth. All message modes can be initiated using the user interface on the phone. A mode like Tracking can be initiated by the app and then the phone can be powered OFF to save the battery life on the phone while the device keeps Tracking.

This unit also comes with a standalone SOS button in case the batteries on the phone die or the phone gets damaged.

More information on

Read: Spot News: The latest news, events and community (including rescue stories)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Deb Kingsbury

Comments About the SPOT Messenger? Do you think the new technology will reduce the misuse of the device?

anonymous on November 06, 2012:

I don't think it will reduce the misuse at all. People seem to be relying on this as an immediate way out of potential trouble rather than a real emergency. I have owned a Spot since they were introduced. I have it primarily to let my wife know I'm ok when I can't get to cell service in the backcountry. The extra features like sending a help message to friends is an added bonus when I'm in trouble and out of cell service. 911 is a last resort. Asmy wife says... are you bleeding? Are you carrying a limb? No, then what are you crying about. :)

Intelliburg on August 02, 2011:

I would definitely get this one if I go out to the no-cell-signals land.

Angelina from California on June 13, 2011:

Great to learn about this life saving product

anonymous on April 06, 2011:

Awesome,informative lens! Blessed by a Squidoo Angel on 4/6/2011. Have a great day!

anonymous on December 05, 2010:

First of all, Spot in not a PLB. It is a fee based gps tracking devices with limited one way communications. It uses the private globalstar Sat network & a private third party to handle emergency calls it is not monitored by any govermen agency. A PLB uses government owned free Sat system & call handling. It is the system that the coast guard & other search & rescue monitor directly, there is no third party involved. If you send a false alarm through a PLB, the government can both fine you and throw you in jail for misuse Also it does not have the tracking ability to an end user personal computer like the spot system but is has a much faster response time to emergency distress calls

Sandy Mertens from Frozen Tundra on November 04, 2009:

Great information.

anonymous on October 29, 2009:

I can see the value of these devices. I have considered using one for my last trip into the remote desert. There are certain risks which could be deadly in the remote wilderness, especially if one is alone. As mentioned, the rattlesnake bite could be deadly. Broken leg from a simple fall. these are real risks that in the past were simply accepted. As I get older and have a family, I see the value of having this safety device. There is a simple way to limit the abuse. If you make a call for a non-lifethreatening emergency then you are financially responsible for the incident. If you make a "false report" then it is punishable just like calling 911 because Mcdonalds is out of Mcnuggets.

anonymous on October 29, 2009:

I just updated my webpage ( and blogged about rattlesnake bites, after talking to a doctor at the Poison Control Center about treatment. He said that the only way to insure surviving a bite is to get medical help. And in the middle of nowhere, alone, that would entail a PLB or Sat phone. I have never considered one before this but I'm thinking about it now. Activating a PLB is serious, and should be treated that way. It is unfortunate that they are being abused. Aside from the risk and cost involved in rescue, I do not want to see rescue helicopters and vehicles crashing through the desert to "rescue" people with a broken pack strap or a blister. And it appears this is what it has come to. The abusers should be charged- financially at least, and possible criminally- false reporting perhaps? This unfortunately is the only way to remedy the situation.

Faye Rutledge from Concord VA on October 29, 2009:

Interesting lens. It's a shame, but people will misuse anything. I think if a rescue team is called out for a non-emergency, the people who called should be made to leave anyway or fined. They could state that on the device. That's probably not doable, but...just my thoughts.

Bambi Watson on October 28, 2009:

Great info!

HorseAndPony LM on October 28, 2009:

I can not make up my mind how I feel about the SPOT. I want one so I should support it. However, the required response from a rescue team is going to get expensive and old if people are careless.

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