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Which Emergency Rescue Device Should I Use?

Following on from my Introduction into Search and Rescue (SAR) services, I now discuss the myriad of emergency rescue devices available to get help. Ultimately someone has to contact SAR for them to be of use to you. Either one of your emergency contacts has to report you as missing, or you have to use a suitable device to get in touch. There are a few groups of devices on the market so let me run through them.

Mobile Phones

The first device is the trusty mobile phone, most people have one and it is normally in your pocket. I have a cheaper mobile phone that I keep for hiking, just in case I drop or break it. Also, that way I am not constantly worried about taking care of it too much. The phone also provides another method of navigation. Normally I have a map/compass on a multi-day hike so the phone is a great backup, but it can also be a method of communication. However, in many remote places, there is little or no phone reception, so be careful when planning your trip. Masts go down, networks have maintenance, so relying on it as your only method of calling SAR is risky.

One thing you should always do in the UK is to register for the Emergency 999 SMS Service. This service was originally created for the deaf and hard of hearing, but is very useful for walkers. Often in remote areas in the UK, the reception is too poor to make a call, but this service allows you to send a text to 999.

In terms of cost, typically there is none because you already have one. In my case there was a small cost to buy a cheap low spec phone, but only a £100 or so for a reasonable phone and a PAYG SIM. You will only have a few hiking and weather apps on it, so you don't need a high spec phone.

Satellite Phones

These are not typically taken by individuals on an adventure due to their weight and cost. Sometimes the team lead in a group, especially a paid group, may have a satellite phone.

Satellite phones are on 1 of 4 networks, Iridium, Inmarsat, Globalstar, and Thuraya. Thuraya is mainly just middle east so if you are looking for any form of global coverage you just have 3 to consider. Iridium has the best most reliable coverage and phones, but Globalstar has cheaper service plans, however, their coverage is not quite as complete.

Typically they allow data calls, texts and many now have some GPS functionality. They cost anywhere from £400 to £1000, depending on features and how rugged you need them. They also have data capabilities but don't get excited, most stop at 9.6K.

Personal Locator Beacons

Personal Locator Beacons, referred to commonly as PLB's, have been around a few years now. They are single-use devices aimed at summoning those emergency services in a life or death emergency. A common mistake people make, are they forget to register the beacon after purchase. Although most beacons contain GPS, unless you register and give contact details, the rescue organisations do not know who to contact. Some PLB's come pre-registered in the country of purchase and you just have to update the registration information with your details. It will also speed up the rescue service. This is a legal requirement in the UK for devices carried on ships. PLB's use the 406 MHz band, just the same as EPIRBs for shipping and ELTs for aircraft. They simply send a distress message via satellite to the international satellite-based search-and-rescue detection and distribution system (Cospas-Sarsat). Not the catchiest organisation name in the world I grant you.

PLB's require no subscription, they are a simple one-off purchase for a single use device. They typically cost £200 to £300.

Satellite Messengers

SM's are a relatively new category of an emergency device created for the outdoor community and enhance the capabilities of a PLB. SM's primarily features an SOS capability and are commonly referred to as Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SEND). When the SOS feature is activated on an SM device, the International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC) based currently in Texas, USA are notified. The IERCC, run by a company called GEOS, will coordinate with the local Search and Rescue teams in the area of activation.

PLB's are just beacons, they have no method of communication, but SM's feature either 1 way or 2 way messaging with text messages. 1 way messaging just allows you to send custom or preset messages to contacts. 2 way messaging obviously allows you to effectively have a full-text conversation with one of your contacts. 2 way messaging is also useful when using the SOS feature because you can stay in touch with the IERCC, giving and receiving updates.

There are 2 main manufacturers of these SEND products, namely GlobalStar Spot devices and Garmin Inreach devices. Spot run on the Globalstar network and Inreach products utilise the Iridium satellite network which in itself has some advantages and disadvantages. SM's require a subscription in order to communicate with the IERCC, similar to a mobile phone. Both Globalstar and Garmin offer a range of plans for their devices, depending upon the features you require. Both companies now also have flexible plans that no longer require a commitment to an annual plan. These devices are anywhere from £200 to £500 and plans range from £10 to £80 a month.

GEOS also provide additional insurance for SAR services.


Ultimately it comes down to budget and requirements. For myself, I currently use a Garmin InReach mini. It isn't the cheapest, but it is the lightest and Iridium has a full 100% worldwide cover. My advice is that as an individual, you should always have at least a mobile phone with you that has been registered on the 999 SMS emergency service. If you have the budget, I highly recommend a Personal Locator Beacon or Satellite Messenger device.

In parts 3 and 4 of this series, I will be creating in depth reviews on individual devices.

Useful Information Links

Product Links

PLB - ACR ResQLink+ - Amazon UK

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