The proliferation of cellphones, satellite phones, emergency locator devices, GPS, and similar technology has led to an epidemic of backcountry rescues for people who have called for help they don’t need, risking the lives of rescuers in the process.
Far more people are now venturing into the backcountry without even minimal survival skills. Many carry gadgets they think of as get-out-of-jail-free cards. More of them than ever before will be rescued from their own incompetence. And too many of their rescuers will be endangered, injured or even killed.
Search-and-rescue outfits around the country are grappling regularly with “false alerts” and novices getting in over their heads because they think gadgetry guarantees safety. More and more folks are carrying personal locator beacons, or P.L.B.’s, into the backcountry. With the push of a button they can send out an emergency distress signal, but no information about their predicament.
Matt Scharper, search and rescue coordinator for the California Emergency Management Agency, calls the locator beacons “yuppie 911’s,” adding, “You send a message to a satellite and the government pulls your butt out of something you shouldn’t have been in in the first place.” Nick Parker, a veteran of 45 years of wilderness rescues in Alaska, said in an e-mail: “The real issue is one of training (or lack thereof), and of our dependence on gizmos to save us. People expect a rescue in the same way they expect a fire engine or ambulance to come when they dial 911.”
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