How Satellite Trackers Save Lives

By Doug Williams
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How Satellite Trackers Save Lives

Doug Williams
 
 
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Kevin Boniface was riding his new motorcycle out from the Colorado Front Range in early May, in an area not too far from the infamous Hayman Fire.

Everything was going well, until a friend, Tom, who was also riding that day, leaned too far over, caught the handle bar, and went down.

When Kevin got to Tom, he was drooling and concussed, and he thought he had broken ribs. “We had the same conversation over and over,” Boniface recalls. “‘How did I get here? What happened?” Tom’s injuries were very serious, and they were about 40 minutes from the nearest paved road and had no cell phone service.

 

Kevin had purchased a SPOT tracker three years before, to have on hand in case of emergencies. He had only ever used the “I’m okay” feature on the tracker before when he had sent the preset message to his wife with a click of a button. Kevin decided that now was the time to use the system’s SOS feature to get help for his friend Tom who was in excruciating pain.

“(My SPOT tracker) was really helpful because I probably could have ridden to go get help, but it saved a lot of time,” Boniface says. The sheriff and an ambulance showed up about 35 minutes later, and they got Tom into the ambulance.

Kevin did not know at the time that he set a milestone of the manufacturers: Tom’s rescue was the 3,000th time that the SPOT’s GPS technology had been used to save someone.

The company that owns SPOT, Globalstar, launched their tracker in 2007 and the use of the devices has been escalating ever since. The SPOT devices can be set-up to send GPS coordinates through stationary low-earth satellites to emergency personnel. The price is about $170 for a tracker and $499 for the phone. Most satellite phones range between $1,000 and $2,000, not including the service fees.

Traditionally, search and rescue teams depend on mobile networks, and sometimes radio networks, to find lost adventurers. According to Globalstar CEO Jay Monroe, about 75% of the planets land surface is out of network; you would have a hard time finding a cluster of cellphone towers in Aniakchak National Monument for instance. But with satellite phones and trackers, they solve this problem. SPOT Gen3 and SPOT Global Phones, which are SPOT’s trackers, can access low-earth satellites from anywhere in the world.

 

“Wherever it is in whichever country, the capability of the unit is such that it really takes the search out of search and rescue,” says Monroe. “You know exactly where the person is and all you have to do is go get ‘em.”

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When anyone presses the SOS beacon on their tracker, a signal with their coordinates is sent to an international dispatch center that is manned by emergency response company GEOS. GEOS then alerts the appropriate emergency response center, in this case, the sheriff’s department, but also the ICE (in the case of emergency) contact of whoever owns the SPOT to find out the owners last known whereabouts.

“The truth is, about one time a day, we get an emergency rescue and often times it’s life or death,” says Monroe. “If it wasn’t out there—there would be a number of people in my backyard of Colorado who wouldn’t be at this year’s Fourth of July barbecue.”.

In Kevin’s case, a county dispatch reporting error sent his wife to the hospital in a full blown panic.

“After the sheriff showed up, I figured I should probably make sure she knew I was okay, so I pressed the okay button,” Boniface says. “She and Tom’s wife saw each other in the emergency room and worked out what had happened.”

Luckily, Tom would make a full recovery from his four fractures to his collar bone and seven broken ribs.

“He’s definitely gonna buy a SPOT,” Kevin said.

 
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