Viable Alternative to an EPRIB?:
The SPOT satellite messenger promises to be a fun tool that can also keep you safer offshore. We take a closer look at what it does, and why you might (or might not) want to buy one.
Taking a boat offshore, out of sight of land, can be a harrowing experience. A motor breakdown, a submerged log, or a sudden storm can leave you in a situation requiring emergency help. But how will you call for help, and how will your rescuers find you?
The historical solution was to not expect anyone to come to your rescue. Boaters tried to be as self-sufficient as possible. They carried extra fuel, installed dual motors, stocked spare parts and tools, etc. Flare kits, signal mirrors, dye markers and similar signaling devices were always stocked, but typically only used once potential rescuers were expected to come within visual range.
Enter Low Earth Orbit Satellites (LEOS), and the associated technologies of GPS (Global Positioning Satellites), and satellite telecommunications. Using GPS, it became possible to get reasonably precise location fixes just about any place in the world. And satellite telecommunications made it possible to transmit that information around the world to potential rescuers.
For boaters, a class of device called Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) was developed. EPIRBs use LEOS to help fix the location of a vessel to about a mile, then transmit that information to an international search-and-rescue organization known by the acronym CoSpas-Sarsat (See http://www.cospas-sarsat.org/). CoSpas-Sarsat involves a number of nations, including the United States, Russia, Canada and France, and can coordinate with local government agencies to affect a rescue.
Basic EPIRBs depend on multiple satellites to triangulate its position from space. More advanced EPIRBs have an internal GPS unit, and transmit GPS position information along with the distress signal. This allows a much more exact fix.
EPIRBs were followed by Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs, sometimes called Personal EPIRBs) – smaller versions designed to be worn by individuals. PLBs use the same types of technologies as EPIRBs, but have less stringent requirements for battery life, activation mechanisms, and orientation of the device when floating.
EPIRBs and PLBs turned out to be a great tool for the offshore boater, but there was one catch – the cost. Until recently, EPIRBS typically cost $800 or more, while PLBs cost in the $450 – 600 range.
Now we have a product called the SPOT Satellite Messenger (http://www.findmeSPOT.com), a device with a novel approach that combines GPS and satellite text messaging into a single emergency signaling unit.
In SPOT, a GPS unit is used to continuously determine its location. If you want to notify someone of your location (referred to as “SPOTchecking®” mode), pushing a button on SPOT sends out your position and a static text message or e-mail (which you compose ahead of time) to up to three recipients via the Globalstar satellite telecommunications network. The messages are also sent to a website, where Google® maps are used to provide plots of your SPOT’s location.
This feature can be a great way to notify people on-shore that you’re OK, even when you’re out of radio or cell phone range.
SPOT also includes two special modes which can be used to request assistance. The first is an “Ask for Help” mode, which sends a predefined text message to up to three recipients every 5 minutes for one hour. This mode is intended to be used for non-emergency requests for help.
There is also an “Alert 9-1-1” mode, which relays your position and request for help to a special international emergency response center. Alert 9-1-1 messages are sent every 5 minutes until the mode is canceled. The response center is manned 7 x 24 x 365 by a private Search-and-Rescue (SAR) company called Geos Alliance. Geos Alliance coordinates SAR efforts with whatever local authorities are required to get you assistance.
For an additional fee, you can also get rescue insurance through Geos Alliance. Underwritten by Lloyds of London, rescue insurance covers up $100,000 of the costs required to rescue you from your emergency, including helicopter evacuation if needed.
SPOT also offers a “SPOTcasting®” mode as an extra-cost service. In “SPOTcasting®” mode, your position is monitored continuously, and position messages are sent back to SPOT every 10 minutes for plotting on a map. It’s important to note that “SPOTcasting®” is not a “Big Brother” function. It does not work unless you explicitly turn it on.
SPOT is a relatively small, light, device that is waterproof to 1 meter for 30 minutes. SPOT claims that it can run continuously for a year on 2 Lithium AA batteries, or up to 14 days when in tracking mode, or up to 7 days when continuously transmitting an Alert 9-1-1 message. It has a lanyard attachment point and a belt clip.
SPOT is available at a much lower price point than a standard EPIRB or PLB. Currently, the device lists for $169, and is available at a street price of around $149. However, there is, as you might expect, a catch - a $99.99/year service plan is required. The basic annual fee provides unlimited SPOTchecking® messages, and includes the “Ask for Help” and “Alert 9-1-1” services mentioned earlier. For an additional $49.99/year, SPOTcasting® is enabled, and for $7.50/year (if you sign up when you buy the SPOT, otherwise $150/year if you sign up later) you can enroll in the rescue insurance policy plan.
For more information, demo programs, and technical specifications, visit the FindMeSpot website at: http://www.findmespot.com.
For a great in-depth technical article, see the "Equipped to Survive" website: http://www.equipped.org
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