Push for help

Apple’s new sports watch with rescue-summoning capabilities/Apple

Wilderness rescues could soon be only a touch away on your wrist thanks to the technology in the newest Apple watch.

Cue the debate on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

The company announced Wednesday that its new, titanium-cased Apple Watch Ultra has an emergency SOS button that can be activated simply by pressing and holding. When the watch is used alone, the SOS call requires a Wi-Fi connection, but if you have it paired to an iPhone 14, say in your backpack, it will automatically uplink to a satellite.

The iPhone 14 is now also being rolled out. Apple promises an iOS 16 software update in November that will enable the phone to make that potentially lifesaving satellite connection.

“Emergency SOS via satellite can help you connect with emergency services under exceptional circumstances when no other means of reaching emergency services are available,” according to the Apple website. “If you call or text emergency services and can’t connect because you’re outside the range of cellular and Wi-Fi coverage, your iPhone tries to connect you via satellite to the help that you need.”

The company does warn there will be a delay in making the connection and that satellite service isn’t guaranteed:

“….With a direct view of the sky and the horizon, a message might take 15 seconds to send, and over a minute to send under trees with light or medium foliage. If you’re under heavy foliage or surrounded by other obstructions, you might not be able to connect to a satellite. Connection times can also be impacted by your surroundings, the length of your message, and the status and availability of the satellite network.”

Dangerous limitations

Apple does not say what satellite network it is hooking up to but warns that “Emergency SOS via satellite might not work in places above 62 degrees latitude, such as northern parts of Canada and Alaska.”

CNBC is reporting Apple has signed a deal with Globalstar to use its satellite array. Globalstar manages the network used by SPOT satellite communicators that have a less than sterling reputation in the 49th state.

Because of the limited coverage of the Globalstar satellite array, Alaska adventurer Luc Mehl flat out says that “if you are going to be using your device in Alaska, don’t get a SPOT.” 

But if you’re upgrading your current cell phone and sports watch with all the bells and whistles – GPS, heart-rate monitor, compass, oxygen sensor, etc., etc., well…

Sixty-two degrees latitude starts near Emmonak on the Yukon River just inland from the Bering Sea, sweeps east near the old Interior mining community of Flat to enter the Alaska Range just south of McGrath, emerges from the Range just north of Skwenta, slides past Talkeetna just a little to the south, and then continues east on a line between Copper Center and Gakona on its way to the U.S.-Canada border south of Beaver Creek.

The part of the state most heavily used for outdoor recreation falls south of the line.

That said, latitude isn’t the only issue with Globalstar’s network of satellites in low-earth orbit over the equator. The location of the satellites means they are found on a very low angle above the horizon even at the 60-degree latitude of Ninilchik on the Kenai Peninsula.

If you’re down in a river valley with mountains to the south this can be a problem. Still, SPOT has been credited with saving lives in Alaska. A SPOT signal initiated a 2016 search for two men whose boat capsized of Knight Island in Prince William Sound, according to the Homer News; three people who survived a small plane crash near St. Mary’s in Western Alaska in 2018 were saved after activing a SPOT, according to the U.S. Army; and there have been other SPOT-aided rescues.

This is the upside of technology moving into the wilderness.

Putting rescuers in danger

The downside is that the ease of calling for rescue has steadily increased the number of calls for rescue, and rescues can put rescuers in danger.

There was a time in Alaska history when most Alaskans considered it unconscionable to summon a rescue unless they or a companion appeared to be at the entry to death’s door, but those days are long gone.Calling for rescue has become a modern-day norm here as elsewhere.

Nine years ago, a snowmachine rider who broke down in a snowstorm near Talkeetna called for a rescue though he was within walking distance of the community.

A well-known Alaska State Trooper pilot flew north in his helicopter, picked up an Alaska State Trooper as his spotter near the community famous as a jumping-off spot for Mount Denali, and flew to the rescue.  The rescuers quickly found their man and picked him up.

But all three died minutes later when the helicopter crashed and burst into flames. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation later concluded that pilot Mel Nading became disoriented while flying in snow and darkness, and that trooper policies had for years been encouraging him to take risks that pushed beyond the limits of safety in order to accomplish search and rescue (SAR) missions. 

SAR operations are inherently dangerous, and many have paid the price with their lives. But SAR professionals see the steady intrusion of technology making things better at the same time it is making things worse.

The better is that the technology can now accurately pinpoint the location of those lost or in trouble, which aids in rescue planning and ensures less time spent searching, which is costly and creates its own risks. A volunteer in a search some 70 miles north of the Central Alaska city of Fairbanks went missing in 2011.

Gerald DeBerry’s four-wheeler was found about a year later in the White Mountains search area, but his body still hasn’t been found. 

The bad of the technology is that it has increased the number of calls for help and seems almost certain to – sooner or later – lead to the death of someone who goes adventuring off the Alaska road system unprepared,  thinking that the ability to call for help from anywhere if problems arise will save them.

Sometimes it can’t.  Anywhere can sometimes be an impossible place to reach.

The weather in Alsaka, especially in the mountains and along the coasts, is notorious for its ability to stifle rescue efforts.

After dog driver Hugh Neff pushed the rescue button on his satellite tracker during the 2014 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, he huddled in his dog sled for hours behind a team that had stalled and then quit on the windswept ice of Golovin Bay on the Bering Sea coast.

Neff kept pushing the button again and again, too, but it didn’t make any difference.

“I was only nine miles from White Mountain but it took them over 10 hours to come,” he told the Nome Nugget after the race. “My legs and my lower arms were starting to freeze up, I could literally feel my body freezing. I could feel myself dying.

“So when the guy finally came and looked at me, I said ‘What took you so long?’ I’ve been pressing the emergency button the whole night, maybe I was doing it wrong, not holding the button down long

No, the problem was the button doesn’t come with a guarantee of rescue because in Alaska rescues can’t be guaranteed.









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8 replies »

  1. I’ve been rescued once out there, having been shot in the head. Fortunately, we were just a few snowmobile miles from a lodge with a radio-phone.
    I’ve driven my pickup through the ice and down 45′ to the bottom of a lake, but I self-rescued and trudged to an occupied house. That medical rescue was conducted with a standard ambulance.
    I go out alone more often than with others. My beloved wife insists that I carry emergency communications. I carry a McMurdo PLB (in my pocket at all times now, not in my carry bag, which could soak at the bottom of a lake for months) and an Iridium sat phone in a Pelican case.
    Obviously, these devices will not guarantee rescue, but the satellite phone has been incredibly helpful. One can get boat repair parts purchased with a credit card, delivered to the airport, and flown out with a float plane to the most remote areas of Alaska (yup, been there, and done that, too).
    That Apple Sport Watch looks cool, but I’d prefer the security of the PLB and Iridium satellite phone combination for both increased satellite connectivity in Alaska and for the flexibility of entities one can contact.

  2. Taking your phone into the wilderness is an odd concept to me . Wives and family might like such a thing though.
    Really a phone and rescue just defeats the purpose of adventure. My dad may have been extreme but he was of the opinion it’s highly irresponsible to put rescuers in danger and told us if he couldn’t make it back on his own then no sense in looking and putting innocents at risk.
    Thats not for everyone though.

  3. The helicopter crash years ago near Talkeetna was tragic. A snowmachine response would have been the better choice given the conditions. Helicopters are overused in many SAR situations and should be reserved for only the most remote terrain. I once watched a helicopter loose elevation and smash the litter attendant and patient through the trees in Yosemite while working with YOSAR…the patient died, and attendant was injured after the cable snapped.

    • Hello Steve, disagree. A helicopter is the quickest, generally safest, and most efficient form of rescue. Do accidents happen? Of course. But, if you’re severely injured would you want a ride to the hospital in a helicopter or snow machine?

  4. Well, we know Apple isn’t using Starlink which is now constructing its polar coverage shell. Launched 46 satellites in August. 15 prototypes previously in orbit, most of which aren’t there anymore. The shell should take 8 launches to complete. Solar activity occasionally slaps a new string out of orbit before they are high enough. Someone is going to figure out how to connect an android smart watch to Starlink signal and get the other side of the cellular world connected to this sort of emergency signal coverage. Cheers –

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