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Communication and Distress Alerting

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This article has been kindly reproduced from http://project2014australia.blogspot.com/


On one of our previous camping trips, we enjoyed several days deep in the bush, to discover on our return to mobile phone range that Toowomba and Lockyer Valley had been devastated by flooding, and Brisbane was underwater again.

Our family and friends in the affected areas were thankfully alright, however we were berated for being out of contact during the crisis by concerned family who had no real idea where we were camping or when we were due back. All they knew was we were camping in a valley by a river somewhere in Kosciuszko National Park.

It got me thinking about what information to leave with family and friends, and how to communicate with them should things go wrong. More importantly perhaps is to communicate with family enough information so that they don’t fret if they cannot get hold of you, or can raise the alarm should you fail to come home.

IsatPhone Pro

My parents recently purchased a new generation prepaid satellite telephone running on the Inmarsat network, the IsatPhone Pro. The phone costs about $650 up front, with $100 buying 100 minutes of talk – with a two year valid period. This phone proved really handy on their last adventure, as they were able to send an SMS message from the phone’s inbuilt GPS.

My parents sent their position daily to us, and we were able to look up on google maps to see where their campsites were. They also called and asked us to organise a set of shock absorbers to be ready and waiting for them in Alice Springs as theirs were rapidly failing on the rough tracks in the area. We were able to reply via SMS (international rate), or send free SMS message from the following web page hosted by Inmarsat.

Some people have expressed concern that the IsatPhone Pros don’t connect to the Australian Emergency Services when the 112 or 000 numbers are dialled. When the global nature of these phones is understood this makes sense, however in the heat of the moment a simple emergency dial number would be appreciated by many. A phone list can be stored in the phone, or you may want to consider carrying a phone book listing local emergency numbers of the area you are travelling in. In my parents case, they carried a listing of all emergency numbers, and for more minor problems, like organising new shock absorbers, relied on me to organise a supplier and fitter for their arrival in Alice Springs.

Personal Locator Beacon

One thing we have carried for a couple of years now is a 406MHz GPS Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). We chose a GME MT410G PLB as our beacon because we wanted to support an Australian company, and also because their PLB is one of the few beacons that has floatation built into the unit (although it is no substitute for the carriage of a EPIRB on a boat). These beacons now cost around $400 for one with a GPS chip inbuilt into the unit.

The neat thing about these beacons, they all work via the proven COSPAS SARSAT satellite system. This global system is used for distress alerting, when in grave or imminent danger.

Each beacon has a unique 15 digit hexadecimal code, allowing rescuers to identify the target. In our case we registered our beacon with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, who undertake Australia’s national Search and Rescue responsibilities. Registration can be done online or by fax or even by telephone (1800 406 406). This free service allows us to list our personal details, as well as that of three emergency contacts who can provide additional information to rescuers about us. We also included medical information on the registration form.

The GPS in built to the unit means position accuracy provided to the Rescue Coordination Centre is down to 120metres (without GPS accuracy is about 5km radius), and more importantly the position is often provided quicker to the RCC, hopefully hastening any response.

The battery in most beacons lasts between 5 and 7 years, and can be replaced doubling the life of the beacon. GME currently do a beacon exchange program for under $200.

We hope to never use the beacon, but it is very comforting to know that it is available should all our normal means of communication and procedures fail.

Spot Messenger

Another contender on the market is the Spot Messenger. This device is primarily a messenger, allowing you to send pre-prepared email messages to friends and family. It also allows you to update your position every 10 minutes online via a web link. As a bonus it has an SOS or 911 button which alerts the SPOT Emergency Centre in the USA that you require assistance, and they will then advice RCC Australia or AusSAR of all information they hold and a search and rescue response will be commenced.

SPOT messengers are great tools for sharing your adventure with friends and family. Recently a good friend, Peter, did a 5 500km trip from Sydney to the Simpson Desert, Birdsville and back to Sydney, and shared his adventure online with a SPOT Messenger. His track can be viewed here.

The SPOT Messenger has a lower purchase price than a PLB, however requires an annual subscription fee to activate the beacon.

HF Radio

HF Radio is becoming less important as hand held satellite telephones begin to dominate long range communications. Choosing your HF frequency to best ensure reception is often a black art, with time of day being the largest factor affecting whether you will get through or not.

Australian tourers are able to log onto the VKS 737 Network, who provide excellent service to travellers. The main advantage of the HF network is that when you transmit, you can reach a community of listeners who often rally to your assistance. Membership of VKS costs about $110 per year, and this includes licencing to use their 7 allocated frequencies.

Travellers are requested to log on whilst they’re travelling, with daily communication skeds (schedules) to stay in touch, similar to the Volunteer Marine Radio network keeping watch over yachts transiting up and down the coast.

On the down side, the units are large and must be fitted to the vehicle, unlike a PLB or satellite telephone. Also listening to HF is a practiced art, and when speaking on the circut, brevity and clarity are essential.

Radios start at around $1500 for a second hand unit, and fully reconditioned car kits can be bought online at HF-Radio.com.au.

So which is best?

There is no easy answer as all four items provide different services. The Satellite Phone and HF radio are the only items that provide true two way communication, and both represent value for money. The Satellite Phone provides private communication choices, whilst the HF transmits to a community of fellow travellers who will often rally to provide assistance.

We have a PLB in the glove box, and we take it on bush walks or even when I go and collect firewood. It is small, and provides peace of mind that if everything goes wrong, we can activate the beacon and be confident a response will commence.

The SPOT is a great compact tool for sharing your adventures, but with the emerging technology and price of items such as the Isatphone Pro, it will more than likely remain a niche tool for bushwalkers and others who are after a compact, set-and-forget tracking tool who want to share their adventures online.

Needless to say, we now leave more information with family when we head off regarding our planned route and campsites. We also reassure them that we do have appropriate means for alerting authorities if we do get into trouble.

End Quote.

And now there is an e-book that takes this and more, and puts it in clear easy to follow text.  Save Our Selves – a guide to getting help in remote areas is now available.


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