Using satellite unit for emergency: lessons learned
April 23, 2021
Lena wrote her story...
I rented my satellite messenger from Fjällcom. Currently I do not have the need to own one myself – usually there is already an satellite unit on the boats I am sailing. For wilderness hikes, renting a satellite device is the best and most cost-efficient alternative.
I chose Fjällcom because of their fast reply, a fair and clear cost model, and the possibility to receive and return the unit by postal mail, no matter where in the country (or the world) you reside.
I chose the Garmin Inreach Explorer unit, because I wanted to have access to topographic maps and the GPS position, as a backup to my paper maps/compass and the topographic maps with GPS in my smartphone.
Fjällcom has many different devices for rent, all depending on what kind of adventure you are setting off to, and what kind of risks there may be. There are some lightweight devices with less functionality, and also full-blown sat phones with voice calling and everything.
The weight of the unit was not too important for a trip with a pulka, but the function was. However, I did not have the need of voice calls, so I settled for this choice as being the best for a solo winter ski hike.
To begin with, I used the device for sending my location along the trail. At home, with my public link, people could see my position on a map, normally updated as I started moving in the morning and every second hour until the evening. I sent an additional position for every night’s camp, and then turned off the device during the night to save batteries. After a few days, I started downloading weather forecast, which was a great feature. During the trip, a weather warning with high winds, fog and heavy snow came through. I could not do much about the weather of course, but it was great to be mentally prepared – and be able to set the camp to withstand the changing winds during the night.
I also used the device for communication via mail, albeit sparingly. The device has an awkward keyboard – it’s QWERTY, but you have to move the cursor with arrows and manually choose every letter, then confirm it. This is easily remedied by connecting your smartphone to the Inreach device, and just writing the mail through the phone’s keyboard. However, that would cost batteries, so I chose to sacrifice the comfort of plentiful communication to the safety of well-charged devices.
So how does the Inreach Explorer work when you need to send a SOS signal? There is a big button on the side, where it says “SOS”. Pressing it won’t help though – it’s a protective cover! You need to open it, and push the smaller button inside. Then, you’ll need to confirm that you will switch to SOS mode.
As soon as you do that, two things happen. One is that the Garmin Emergency Response Coordination (GEOS) is contacted. The other one is that an on-call person from Fjällcom receives the SOS signal and immediately starts a return communication, checking what the emergency is – and what needs to be done. Then they organize further action, which can be anything from practical questions to coming in touch with the rescue services of the correct nature and geographical proximity. This is a service that is included in renting the device. It's great - normally, you'd contact someone at home but you cannot expect them to be on-call 24/7, and check mails for an emergency message every minute.
As I called for help, the GEOS were not able to do much. However, the Fjällcom contacts were quick to reply, and very helpful in contacting the correct services so an evacuation could be started. I was notified that several units were on the way. The units themselves received a link to communicate to me directly – however they did not attempt communication. So during the SOS call, the Fjällcom staff was my primary contact and source of information. The tone was calm, competent and helpful, which helps a lot when there is a crisis. The replies came from different senders, which was a bit unclear, but the important part was to get the communication through, which worked perfectly.
Trying to move with an injured leg was very painful, and I was afraid I would not be able to balance properly, risking more falls, and more injuries – not only worsening the damage to the leg, but potentially damaging other limbs, or the spine or skull. I chose not to risk it, and got a confirmation to stay where I was – the SOS signal sends an exact position. Yet I needed to do something, and picking the right strategy was tricky without information. It could be counterproductive to start off with something that is based on rescue coming within some hours, when the rescue is coming within a few days. Or the opposite.
Because I was told that units were on their way, I switched to the mindset of getting rescued before nightfall. It’s a risky mindset, meaning I did not make any preparations to spend the night and ride out the worsening weather. However, in a situation where pain is a major factor, it’s a very comfortable thing to fall into. After a while, I actually got the confirmation and ETA for a rescue unit! Now it was clearer, and I was very happy for that information.
I made myself as visible as possible, with criss-crossed skis above. I unwrapped and spread out the signal-colored cover from the pulka, which I chose for this reason exactly. I wrapped myself in as much warm clothing as possible, created an isolation layer between me and the snow, and protected myself with a wind sack, hiding from the wind on the lee side of the pulk. The wind was getting stronger, so both the sack and the pulka cover were flapping violently. I tried to distance myself from the worrying by pulling out all sweet snacks I had close by, and taking out my camera to look at the photos from the start of the expedition. The photos helped to distract myself from the ongoing situation, and the desperate waiting did not feel as prolonged as it otherwise would.
At last, one of the units came within reach. What a relief!
I got the best professional care possible. All the stuff were amazing. The leg is actually already much better at the time of writing, some three weeks later. I've been doing the training ordinated by a physiotherapeut, and manage to walk and function more or less properly - although still limping. And I’ve already been to a local rescue assignment myself, very happy to be able to pay it forward.
The only thing that I could have done differently was that I could have left more information about the SOS function to my near and dear. My lesson from this is that if I share the link with anyone, I also will need to share information about what SOS signal means and what kinds of initiatives could be constructive.
To sum up: in a situation of distress, where mobile coverage is not reliable or non-existing, using a satellite communication device is imperative for your safety. My situation was that during a winter solo skiing trip to the most inaccessible areas of the country, I badly injured my leg and could not continue, alone in the wilderness with the weather starting to deteriorate. The possibility to call for help allowed me to be evacuated by a professional team, and to get a timely medical attention to treat injuries at an early stage. The Inreach Explorer unit that I rented from Fjällcom was what made the difference between a scary and uncomfortable situation ending happily – and a tragic accident that may have ended with much more serious injuries, such as further damage to the limbs and spine, pain shock, frostbite and hypothermia – just to give a few examples.
The Fjällcom team have been communicative and helpful, and I will definitely rent satellite units from them again, whether I’m on a solo adventure or am leading a group. The presence of other people at an emergency site is not a guarantee of containing the situation! But the possibility to contact professionals and coordinate an evacuation definitely is.