Thursday, April 9, 2015

Communications Devices Can Save Your Life

Each week, Alaskans (and others around the world) read news reports of someone trapped for hours or days by bad weather, an avalanche, or an accident. The following devices could save them time, money, and possibly, lives. Many are the size of a deck of cards and not much heavier. The following recommendations come from Bryan Emerson, a member of Alaska Airmen Association, Willow CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and Civil Air Patrol (search and rescue operations).  Below the article are resource links and purchase/use recommendations.  

Communications technology transmits information either one-way or two way. Both are useful.

Weather radio: (Advertised prices range from $20 – 100.) A weather radio is the size of a portable AM/FM radio, and, in fact, many portable and installed AM/FM radios include a local weather band that relays continuous loops of repeated and updated weather information for a target area. Dedicated weather radios offer multiple weather frequencies so that a traveler in remote locations can usually tune in to one or more. (In our part of the Alaska bush, we can hear two stations). Some devices allow for an external antenna that boosts reception. With this in mind, many prudent backpackers traveling through river valleys or the back side of mountains carry a lightweight coil of copper wire that they can plug into the radio and hand up on a tree.  Travelers can see the weather station frequencies for various locations on  Consider enrolling in a free online SKYWARN Spotter class. (free) This website program enables someone to track a traveler for free, on the website, (FI for Finland) as long as the traveler carries a GPS equipped amateur radio (like a Kenwood) and has registered the radio call sign on the website. To work, the person with the transmitter needs to be within line of sight of (radio) repeater towers. (There are two in Anchorage). We have found it easy to follow the progress of a traveler on foot, car, or airplane throughout large swaths of the Mat-Su Valley, too. However, it cannot capture travel in river bottoms or the far side a mountain undetected by a repeater tower.

Satellite based systems: Any satellite based device automatically captures and transmits GPS coordinates of the user. For this reason, it needs to be registered (at no cost) with every two years with the owner's name, contact information, and an emergency alternate person. For your safety, be sure to update this!

GPS: (global positioning system). These devices are sold in a huge variety of sizes, capabilities, and price ranges. Since most are optimized (differently) for off-road, on-road, aviation, and marine usage, a prudent shopper should determine his or her intentions before buying. In addition, various manufacturers offer internet based updates, such as maps. Of these, some are free and others require a subscription. By anticipating your needs, you can do some proactive comparison shopping and uploading of pertinent information.

For our family, we have three different devices.

a) For the car, we have a portable Tom Tom (about $100 at Costco) that we always throw in a suitcase when we travel.
b) For off-road purposes, we use a Garmin 62S (about $250 on Amazon) which is the size of a walkie-talkie. We can download detailed maps of our area when connected to the Internet (we bought a contour map of Alaska only for about $100 – most map downloads do NOT show contours) and have pre-programmed routes to our off-road home, cross country, by snow machine, even in white out, snow storm conditions.
c) On our plane, we have an Aero500 (about $500 from Garmin resellers). (Updated maps cost about $200 per quarter).

Location identifier (personal tracking):
Whereas a GPS helps you know both where you are and how to get to your destination, the following personal tracking devices are intended only to let other people know where you are located.

Global Star's SPOT, Spider, and DeLorme's InReach are well known brands. Prices range from $18 to $1000. They requires monthly or annual fees, too. Increasing numbers of cross country races are attaching these devices to competitors' vehicles and sleds so that race organizers can track progress. Some enable the traveler to send text messages, like “I am hurt,” or “I'm stopped but OK, just resting.”

Personal locator beacon. (DeLorme, SPOT, and Acr sell products for $150 – 300).
These devices are the ones that help find hikers buried under avalanches, scuba divers and boaters swept away, and downed aircraft. If activated, either intentionally or upon impact, they communicate GPS coordinates automatically to the national rescue coordination center in Washington DC. That organization immediately initiates a rescue operation by local responders. Since no dual communication is possible, a search is launched even in the case of accidental deployment, for which the owner of the device may incur an expensive service fee.

By contrast with the unilateral transmitting devices above, the following allow bi-lateral communication.

Cell phone. Cell phones have become ubiquitous in cities, but in many remote areas, service is spotty or non-existent. However, even in conditions or locations where vocal transmission does not work, a traveler may be able to transmit/receive text messages, which are smaller files. We did this in Texas when Hurricane Ike had knocked out cell phone towers and electricity throughout hundreds of square miles. We texted a relative that we were safe and asked him to book and pay for plane tickets we could use to fly out of town on the first day the airport would be functional. He texted back the confirmation numbers and the airport opening date. We crossed a desolate landscape to a nearly empty airport to fly elsewhere before others figured out how to do so.

Satellite phone: (Iridium, GlobalStar, Immarsat sell versions for $600 - $1400). Satellite phones work far from cell towers from anywhere with a clear view of the sky. These require a subscription.

Amateur (ham) radio:
(ICOM, Yaesu, and Kenwood sell versions ranging from $97 - $500). Hand held radios are the size of walkie-talkies. They provide service throughout huge areas that are detectible by a regional radio tower. In order to operate one, a user needs be licensed, by passing a short, multiple choice licensing exam conducted by a local ham radio volunteer group, usually once a month. The cost is nominal – about $15, with no subsequent fees after passing. One can find study guides for free on the Internet. (see More than 700,000 people are registered with amateur radio licenses in the U.S. In many parts of Alaska, the “nets” are actively monitored by lots of volunteers for races, emergencies and non-telephone communication. During an earthquake or other disaster that disables telephone and internet, these radio “nets” are particularly important.

My husband carries a hand held radio on his snow machine, amplifying its reach with an antenna on the back of the machine. We know the high spots along his common routes from which he could call me (or others) if needed.

Hand held aviation radio:
Aviation radios communicate only with other aviation radios, and are illegal to use except in a plane or an aviation related emergency (such as a downed plane). The person transmitting can reach any other planes that are monitoring the AM frequencies in that vicinity. Upon hearing an emergency call, a pilot can contact the rescue coordination center of AK, a flight service station, a worried relative or endeavor to land or drop emergency supplies. Note: although most planes have GPS indicators for navigation, a radio transmission itself does not automatically communicate location. So a passenger might want to ask a pilot friend before take off, “so, where are we going?”

Prudent outdoorsmen and pilots know that you cannot anticipate every eventuality. When deleterious surprises occur, hands-on wilderness and emergency skills are key, but communication technology can also save money, time and lives.
  • Product quality varies by manufacturer. Ask users. Read reviews.
  • To be effective, each item should be fully charged and packed with extra batteries.
  • Battery life is considerably shorter in cold weather and after frequent or long transmissions.
  • Research before you buy. Do you need all those extras? Is it for the environment you intend?.
  • Satellite based communication requires monthly or annual access fees.
  • Radio based communication is free (well, your tax dollars pay for it).
  • Locator beacons require registration so the emergency response team can call the names you have identified on your contact file. Update it!
  • If possible, practice in the environment for which it is intended (cold, wet, mountainous, dark, etc).
RESOURCES: (Federal Aviation Administration) (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - weather for air, sea, and land) (American Radio Relay League: ham radio) (Federal Emergency Management Agency) (Community Emergency Response Teams) (amateur radio free practice for licensing exams)


  1. Yes, Globalstar has certainly started to live up to expectations here in Alaska. I picked up a FREE Globalstar phone under a promotion at Glacier Aircraft Parts in Palmer, and it was a pretty good deal. The phone was normally $500, which isnt bad, and went to zero on a cheap service plan I got.

    Globalstar phone works really good in the plane. Backpacking in the Chugach worked really well. Couple of dropped calls - but ALWAYS got service.

    Globalstar is a big upgrade from my old Iridium phone. Phone is tiny, have 907 Wasilla based number, and the audio is a BIG upgrade - sounds just like Wire.

    Randy. P

  2. A conference call is a telephone call in which someone talks to several people at the same time. The conference calls may be designed to allow the called party to participate during the call, or the call may be set up so that the called party merely listens into the call and cannot speak. It is sometimes called ATC (audio tele-conference).
    Conference Call