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Satellite gadgets assist search-and-rescue in Smokies

Some new high-tech mobile gadgets are help hikers who boldly roam where no cell phone has called before in the Smokies.
Satellite messengers are less expensive than PLBs, but require a subscription fee to activate an emergency signal.

(WBIR - Great Smoky Mountains) For those who boldly roam where no cell phone has called before, going off the grid in the Great Smoky Mountains can also mean an inability to contact emergency crews.

Search and rescue missions for injured and missing hikers come with the rugged territory.

"We're the most-visited national park in the country, so it stands to reason that we will be among one of the busiest national parks for search and rescue missions," said Steve Kloster, search and rescue coordinator for the Great Smoky Mountains. "We average around 100 search and rescue cases a year."

Kloster emphasized some tried-and-true safety tips to help stray hikers. That includes hiking in groups, telling relatives or the park office your exact itinerary before staring the hike, and staying on the main trail if you are lost.

"This park is very easy to get turned around in. You can only get 100 yards off the trail and have no idea where you are," said Kloster. "When we talk search and rescue, we're talking about two different things. We're talking searching for lost people and then rescues. In this park we have very few large searches, but we have a lot of rescues. And generally those are people slipping on the trail and breaking a lower leg or some type of lower-leg injury. Then we have to go rescue them and carry them out."

In 2014, crews rescued 139 people in the Smokies. Of those rescued people, 84 were men and 55 were women. Almost half of the people rescued in 2014 were older than 50.

"There's no doubting that people bite off more than they can chew. You might look at a map and see it's only 10 miles. It might be 10 miles straight up," said Kloster. "When people get fatigued, they make mental mistakes or suffer physical injuries."

With little-to-no cell service in much of the park, some new high-tech tools are helping hikers in distress. Among the most popular tools are messengers and personal locator beacons (PLBs) that send an SOS via satellite.

"There was a one we got not too long ago where a hiker was on a trail that crosses a lot of creeks. There was a lot of rain and he was stranded and unable to cross the water," said Kloster. "There's a lot of new technology. We've had several SPOT activations in the park in the last few years. It is not something we see a lot of here compared to areas in the western U.S., but we have had some."

SPOT is a brand of GPS messenger device that uses commercial satellites to call for help. Another popular brand of satellite messenger is Delorme InReach. Both brands require the user to pay a subscription fee to activate the service.

There are no subscription fees to send an SOS signal using a Personal Locator Beacon. PLBs primarily use military satellites to transmit the distress call with your latitude and longitude coordinates. PLBs also have a stronger signal than satellite messengers.

The cost difference between the two devices is generally a debate of pay now or pay later. PLBs are more expensive, but do not have subscription fees. Satellite messengers are less expensive, but require additional cash on either a monthly or annual basis.

Those who pay for a subscription get some added benefits beyond the ability to send an emergency message. Messengers can also allow you to send text messages via satellite. The subscriptions services can also map your movements for friends or loved ones to keep track of your whereabouts in areas where there is no cell phone signal.

"It has really helped us with search and rescue and we can almost instantly pinpoint where you are," said Kloster. "If you can get to an area with cell service, we can also usually lock in relatively close to your cell phone. We've had cases where the phone signal put us within 100 feet of the person's location."

Satellite technology has changed Kloster's job in another big way. All search and rescue team members now carry GPS tracking devices to keep a log of where crews have searched.

"We download that GPS information into the computer and it will show us exactly where that search and rescue team searched that day. It helps us know what ground we covered and organize a continuing search," said Kloster.

Even if you can afford a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon, Kloster says you should still pack some traditional tools that do not rely on batteries such as a loud whistle. Another vital tool is a folded piece of paper provided by the National Park Service.

"Probably the most important thing you can have in your pack is one of our park trail maps. Not only does it have a map of all of the trails. The back of this map has everything you need to know if you get lost, if you get hurt, if you have an encounter with a bear, and all types of safety information that can keep you from getting into trouble to begin with. It's something that might be very low tech, but I say it is the most important item," said Kloster.

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