The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 122: Calling for Help Revisited

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

If you ever need to summon help in the backcountry, you want to know what works. This week on The WildeBeat; Calling for Help Revisited.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one twenty two, a revisit of number thirty seven.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Have you ever thought about how you'd get help in the wilderness if you needed it? You'd probably rather do it in a way you that could be heard by somebody who's listening. Also, it would be comforting to know that they got the message. Out of all the different ways you could let somebody know about your situation, some of them work better than others.

STEVE: If you look at any kind of outdoor skills training guides, most of them recommend that you carry a whistle. A whistle is light and small. Mine sounds like this...

[Whistle burst]

STEVE: They're pretty reliable. And you can still make a loud noise, long after you might have lost your voice from yelling. Out in the open, the sound of a whistle can carry half a mile or so down wind. Up wind, you'll be lucky if it carries a couple of hundred yards. So when help is nearby, it's a valuable tool. But about the most you can say to anyone is, "I'm here."

STEVE: The same goes for a signal mirror. If you really know what you're doing, and where the person is who you want to signal, and you're in direct sunlight, a signal mirror can be seen tens of miles away. But your flash of light might also be mistaken for other random flashes reflected by water, vehicles, or aircraft.

STEVE: Both of these techniques can be improved if the people on both ends of the conversation know morse code. But increasingly, most people don't.

STEVE: What about smoke signals? Maybe you could get someone's attention building a smoky fire. But who's looking for smoke signals these days? Certainly not the rangers who used to occupy fire lookout towers. Most of them have been replaced by aircraft and satellites.

STEVE: Now if I was talking to an audience in-person, someone by now would be waving their hand eagerly, wanting to ask, "What about my cell phone!" Over three out of every four Americans have one after all.

STEVE: Of all of the cell phone carriers providing service in California, the only one who would agree to be interviewed was Sprint-Nextel. Caroline Semerdjian works for them as a media relations officer.

CAROLINE SEMERDJIAN: Sprint-Nextel is committed to investing a lot of dollars into expanding the network nationally. But our first focus is to expand it in areas where business are conducted, where people live. So it's business areas, cities, urban areas, and then eventually we'll expand it into rural areas. Right now the strongest network will be in areas where people reside and work.

STEVE: Caroline said that a page on Sprint's web site will tell you if they offer coverage within a particular zip code area. And in general she recommends checking with your particular carrier about coverage in the areas you plan to travel.

STEVE: A cell phone is just a fancy two-way radio, and it only works when you're within line-of-sight from one of your service provider's radio towers. But the wilderness act prohibits structures like these radio towers in wilderness areas. Perhaps, if you can take your phone to the right high point, you'll have radio contact with a tower outside of the wilderness. So, if you're out of range for a cell phone, what's the next option?

STEVE: A satellite phone contacts radios onboard satellites. Most of these networks have been designed so that there's always at least one satellite overhead, that is assuming you have a clear view of a large portion of the sky. Satellite phones can be rented for around fifty dollars a week, with airtime rates from a dollar per minute, and up. Some of these systems work world-wide, but they might not work through thick foliage, thick clouds, or in canyons. Sergeant Phil Caporale of the Fresno County Sheriff's Department had trouble with his, during the winter rescue we reported on in our editions fifteen and sixteen.

PHIL CAPORALE: We were having difficulty getting out with a sattelite phone at base camp. We couldn't use our radios, the cell-phones would not work. When the weather gets that poor, I don't know that any kind of electronics would be helpful.

STEVE: You might think of using two-way radios, such as F-R-S, which stands for Family Radio Service. These radios are designed to work over a very limited range. A lot of them claim five miles, but you might only get that range under ideal conditions. For example, mountain top to mountain top. And, most of the time, it's not likely that anyone would be listening near enough to you, on a similar radio.

STEVE: Another kind of two-way radio is amateur radio. Known sometimes as "ham radio", it's the choice of most volunteer search and rescue teams. Bill Jeffrey maintains a web site called the Pacific Crest Trail Repeater Guide. It's a directory and guide to using ham radio along the PCT.

BILL JEFFREY: Ham radio has two advantages. One is, you can run a whole lot more power on them, you can also put larger antennas on them. But the bigger advantage is that there's repeaters available on mountain tops. And what a repeater does, is it receives a signal from one radio, say a walkie-talkie, and it repeats that back from the mountain top. So anyone who's in eyesight or earshot of that mounatin top can hear your signal. So it greatly expands your coverage area from two to three miles of line of sight, to basically anybody who can see that mountain top that you can also see.

STEVE: Who would you talk to with this thing? I mean it's not like a cell-phone that you can dial any number in the book, right?

BILL JEFFREY: No, you have to have somebody at the other end listening for you. But in many areas, particularly southern California, the Bishop area, the Sierra areas, northern California especially they're very popular, and so if somebody's out there you can get help.

STEVE: And so you're talking to other amateur radio operators...

BILL JEFFREY: Correct. And you do have to have a license to use these. Once you pass the exam the FCC will give you your call sign. Mine is A-A-6-J. The exam is pretty simple, really. My daughter was eleven when she got her license. She studied for about a week, and she passed the test.

STEVE: Bill Jeffrey is known among ham radio circles as A-A-6-J, and goes by "AsaBat" among through-hikers.

STEVE: A newer class of communication devices have a devoted following. I interviewed Doug Ritter for our edition numbers seventy eight and seventy nine, titled Counting Up Essentials. Doug is a consutant and publisher about survival skills and emergency preparedness. He's a fan of a new class of devices called P-L-B's, which stands for Personal Locator Beacon.

DOUG RITTER: First of all, cell phones, sat-phones, are unreliable. How many times have you tried to make a cell-phone call and not been able to do so. In the areas where it's supposed to be good coverage, let alone in the back of the wilds... If you have a P-L-B, someone is going to come looking for you immediately... We've had recent rescues where people have turned on their P-L-Bs and were rescued within a few hours... They let someone know you're in trouble, they let them know who it is, and they let them know where to come get you. All in one little compact package... The big advantage that 406 megahertz beacons have is they are very, very reliable. They don't care if you're in a slot canyon, they don't care if you have much view of the sky. You know, sooner or later the satellite's going to come around and pick up that beacon. That is a huge advantage.

STEVE: But some people think that having good communications in the backcountry takes some of the wild out of a wilderness experience. Ranger Laurel Boyers recently retired as the wilderness manager for Yosemite National Park.

STEVE: And that brings us to some of the latest of devices, like the personal locator beacons that sort of give you an instant nine one one back there.

LAUREL BOYERS: Which I think is really sad. I think that takes much of the wildness out of it. And I'm very sorry for that... when you ...ask somebody to tell you their best wilderness experience, what was the coolest trip you ever took, invariably, they'll tell you a story of surviving something... It's not the times that you look down at your thing and said, you know, "come get me, I just twisted my ankle", or whatever. It's, "I toughed it out and I made it off the hill and I had to drag myself on my injured ankle," or you know, whatever it was was something that really tested them.... And the more we use technology to insulate ourselves while we're out there, the more we loose in my opinion.

STEVE: Probably the best advice on the subject came from Tim Kovacs of the Mountain Rescue Association, as he said in our edition number thirty three:

TIM KOVACS: Tell someone where you're going. Go where you say you're going, or call that person and tell them you've changed your plan. Take the stuff that you need, and never rely on technology to solve your problems in the backcountry.

STEVE: This program was originally published on April thirteenth, two thousand six. We'd like to hear your thoughts on calling for help in the backcountry, or about experiences where one of the techniques we've talked about made a difference for you. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You'll find links to more information about backcountry communications, on our web site. I want to thank my fellow outing leader in the Sierra Club, Steve Stearns, amateur radio operator K-6-O-I-K, for providing the research for this edition. Thanks, Steve.

[Closing Music: 0:10 and under]

Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Insitute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one twenty two. Thank you for listening.

[Closing Music: ends.]

Next time -- Winter Gear.

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