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Emergency Communications

What is the primary emergency communication device for your program?  Read on for the Outdoor Safety Institute's recommendations…

One of your participants is in a "life or limb" emergency situation, you or your field staff stabilize the situation as best as possible but know that this person needs to get to the hospital.  Do you have an emergency communication device?  What is it?   How do you use it?  What is your back-up plan?

Individuals and organizations face many variables when considering which, if any, emergency communication device they should carry.  If you decide to carry an emergency communication device or devices, OSI has some detailed recommendations.  The availability and affordability of handheld emergency communication devices is ever increasing.

This article focuses on four of the most commonly used devices on the market right now: SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger, Fast Find 210 Personal Locator Beacon (PBL), satellite phones, and cell phones.  They all have strengths and limitations.  There are other field communications tools on the market and we would appreciate hearing about your experiences with them (particularly the ISat Phone by Inmarsat, and the Geopro messenger by Iridium). 

Fast FindMcMurdo Fast Find 210: The Fast Find is a one-way device (PLB) that can only be used to send out an SOS. This is the device OSI recommends for organizations that want one simple and low-cost emergency communication device.

The Fast Find is compact, simple and works on an established global rescue system (COSPAS-SARSAT, an international government funded system). We like that it's for emergency use only and if taken care of the built-in rechargeable battery does not need replacement for five years.

Currently you can buy the Fast Find for $230 with no annual fees. The Fast Find unit needs to have its battery replaced by an authorized source at which time the unit will also be tested, $195.  Buy the Fast Find from a retailer/distributor that is able to confirm date of manufacture to maximize battery life.  For the Fast Find 210 you're paying a little less than $50/year for each unit ($230 initial purchase cost/5 year battery life).  With very minimal training a leader or participant could quickly and effectively use the Fast Find 210 in an emergency.

SPOTSPOT Satellite GPS Messenger: SPOT makes a number of devices that work on the private Gobalstar satellite system.  These one-way devices have uses including sending “I’m OK” messages that relay GPS coordinates, sending a custom text message (written pre-trip) to recipients of your choice, or sending an SOS to an emergency relay service.  The SPOT has applicable uses in many situations but for programmatic use OSI doesn't recommend relying on it as the sole emergency communication device.

Like many electronic devices, the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger takes time to set up and learn how to use. The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger has multiple functions, which initially make it attractive, however this adds to the need for training and necessity to monitor battery use/replacement. The SPOT utilizes Globalstar’s trouble prone satellite system and some users have reported an inconsistent ability to transmit messages, especially internationally. The SPOT uses 3 AAA batteries that can be changed by the owner, a feature we like.  You may need to replace the batteries frequently depending on the type of battery and the functions utilized.

The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger costs $130 plus a $100/year to maintain the required subscription.  Over five years the SPOT satellite GPS Messenger will cost about $126/year (~$130 initial purchase price + ~$100/year subscription).  Be aware that some earlier SPOT units were recalled, check out the details here. [4/11 - There has been another recall involving the "SPOT Satellite Communicator."]

Iridium 9555Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone: If your program can afford to purchase or rent a satellite phone it's well worth it.  This allows two-way communication and assuming that the person making the call is able to convey location in some fairly specific capacity it can second as an emergency communication device.  Most programs we've worked with advocate for Iridium satellite phones for their consistent performance in the U.S. and internationally (while it is possible the situation has improved we cannot recommend Globalstar phones due to severe reliability problems with their satellite network in recent years).

At a purchase price of approximately $1300 plus a calling plan the Iridium 9555 it is more of a commitment then the two other devices mentioned. Satellite Phone rental may be an excellent choice depending on the needs of the program.  Look to spend ~$1.50/minute prepaid +  ~$200/month for Satellite phone rental.  If you use a satellite phone for more than about 4-5 months it’s probably more cost effective to buy one. We also recommend carrying a spare battery for your satellite phone (~$100).  We found this map of satellite coverage from the four main carriers helpful, though keep in mind that many factors can limit coverage on the ground.

Cell phoneCell Phone: If you know you'll typically be in coverage range, consider the option of a plain cell phone. The reliability of cell phones can be enhanced via two means: 1) enabling text messaging, which is far more reliable than voice in areas with low signal strength, and 2) using a compact external antennae (~$30). Our experience is that the signal reliability and battery life is better with basic “dumb” phones than newer “smartphones.” As this technology is familiar to most people and the costs are so variable we are not including a cost analysis here.

Battery Care: With any of these devices, batteries become a concern.  Any emergency device using batteries should be kept in optimal temperatures (above freezing).  We recommend keeping your batteries within your clothing layers and sleeping with the batteries (or the entire unit) at night.  Most communications devices that you use should have an extra set of batteries (or more depending on your use).  Solar chargers are available for many devices.  This is not an option with the Fast Find but seeing as though it is only used in emergency situations, the battery life should not be a problem if replaced within manufacturers suggested timeline.

Training: Make sure that whomever is taking these devices into the field has practiced using them and that there are always dead simple instructions packed with the device.  OSI is aware of two emergencies where a $1300 satellite phone was rendered useless as those carrying it didn’t know how to place a call.

Backup Plan: The proliferation of field communications equipment has led some programs to become over-reliant on this technology for emergency response. Batteries get drained, devices break or get wet, signals may be blocked by the terrain, satellites fail—there are many reasons emergency communications gear may not work when needed. Field staff should always be trained in how to conduct or initiate a rescue without any field communications. For extremely remote activities consider a redundant emergency communications system using devices operating on separate networks. For most regions the redundant system OSI recommends is an Iridium satellite phone and a McMurdo Fast Find.

These recommendations are specific to land based activities including smaller rivers.  Open water (ocean, large river and lake) emergency devices are recommended if not determined by maritime law.  The devices discussed here are not recommended as primary emergency devices on open water.

Also, these recommendations are specific to the time of publication.  These devices often upgrade capabilities and new manufacturers will surface with new products.  Prices will change.  We strongly encourage programs to seek expert guidance when considering the creation of emergency protocol and use of communications devices in their program.

Ideally, many threatening situations will be prevented with sound decision making.  Time spent on training staff on safety can be a highly effective prevention tool.  Still, emergencies happen and wilderness first aid training, while critical for outdoor leaders, isn’t always enough.  Assistance may take a while to reach the backcountry; however it is hard to ignore the potential value of an emergency signaling or communications device. Costs are decreasing and reliability of these devices is increasing. OSI recommends some emergency signaling or communications capacity for most multi-day wilderness-based programs.

This is an increasingly complex topic as more options become available. Do you have additional information or a different perspective? We’d appreciate hearing your comments, input or suggestions below.

More on

DeLorme InReach - Affordable 2-Way Satellite Texts & SOS? (June 2011)

SPOT Communicator Recall (April 2011)

Requiring Communication Devices? (January 2011)

SPOT 2 Recall (March 2010)

Links to Additional Resources:

Satallite phone coverage map
Fastfind by McMurdo

ISATPhone by Inmarsat
Geopro (Iridium network texting)
Solara Field Tracker

Posted by

OSI Staff

on 1/27/11
Field SafetyProgram ManagementTools & ToysResource


A great deal of thanks for another brilliant content. I think that These devices often upgrade capabilities and new manufacturers will surface with new products. Thanks for sharing.

By jonson will on 02/16/2011 at 04:31 AM

Thanks for the in-depth review. Just what my program needed. May contact you for some more advice on our Alaska operations.

By Justin Lathrop on 03/02/2011 at 02:19 AM

Your posts always provide such great information and advice. I’ll explore these products more to see what’s best for my program. Thank you.

By Adam Black on 03/19/2011 at 12:48 PM

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