With New GPS Devices, Hikers Taking More Risks

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Rescue services are complaining that a new generation of GPS tracking devices are leading hikers and trackers to take risks they are unprepared for. Matt Scharper, who coordinates Search and Rescue operations for the state of California, offers his insight.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.


And I'm Melissa Block in California.

If you're going hiking or climbing in the back country, you may decide to take a personal locator beacon or a satellite tracker with you, a small device that transmits your GPS coordinates to rescuers in case of an emergency. And because these devices have gotten pretty cheap and common, rescuers are finding more and more people using them carelessly, sending distress calls when they really don't need to.

Matt Scharper is California's search and rescue coordinator with the state's emergency management agency. And, Mr. Scharper, you're seeing this, I gather, so much that you now have a nickname for these gizmos.

Mr. MATT SCHARPER (Search and Rescue Coordinator, California Emergency Management Agency): Yes, I do.

BLOCK: And what is it?

Mr. SCHARPER: I've coined them the yuppie 911 device.

BLOCK: And by that, you mean what exactly?

Mr. SCHARPER: I simply mean that more and more people are relying on technology and gizmos and stuff like that to basically rely their own safety on a device versus common sense as it used to be.

BLOCK: In other words, they might be taking more risks than they would ordinarily, going places maybe where they're not really prepared to go because they figure, well, I have this thing in my pocket, I'll be okay?

Mr. SCHARPER: That is correct.

BLOCK: And then, are they also using them at times when they really don't need to, when there really isn't an emergency?

Mr. SCHARPER: Yes, and that's the unfortunate thing about these devices because the concept itself is absolutely great. The problem is 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.

BLOCK: And how do you sort through whether it's a genuine thing? I guess if you get an emergency call, you have to respond no matter what.

Mr. SCHARPER: That's correct. We have no idea - when 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.

BLOCK: And the trouble there, I imagine, is not just the expense of sometimes unnecessary rescues, but also you're putting the rescuers in some danger as well.

Mr. SCHARPER: And that's a perfect point because it is a huge issue for search and rescue teams in that they are responding to every one of these as bona fide emergencies until proven otherwise. And when search and rescue personnel are placing their own selves at risk for somebody that's just uncomfortable or didn't plan or prepare, it creates a hardship for all of us.

BLOCK: Can you give me an example of one of those cases where you've responded to somebody like that?

Mr. SCHARPER: Absolutely. We had a case not too long ago in the high mountains of San Bernardino County, where weather came in on the mountain ridges, and the gentleman was unable to continue with his hike. And so, he activates his device because he's going to be late, he's going to be overdue. He has to spend another night out on the mountains, and he pitches his tent and seeks shelter inside. And as a result of the activation, we launched resources, thinking that there's a true emergency here when, in fact, there's not.

BLOCK: Well, what do your rescue teams say, as they're talking, when they come back from something like that?

Mr. SCHARPER: Well, it's - the issue we're having right now is we have grumbling amongst the rescue teams about the public's perception or the public's view of what this device is designed to do. And it's - and frankly, it's not a taxi device. It's not a guaranteed ride out of your predicament, because if you in fact have a true emergency, we may know where you are, but that doesn't mean we can get to you in time.

People need to be educated; they need to be prepared. They need to train, prepare and equip for the environment, and don't take chances just because they have this device.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Scharper, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. SCHARPER: Oh, well, thank you for having me on your show.

BLOCK: Matt Scharper is California's search and rescue coordinator. He spoke with us from Ahwahnee, California. That's near the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park.

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