Skip to main content

Help is on the Way... or is it?

Help is on the way... or is it?

by Jerry Dupree

Have you ever had a false sense of security and thought you could solve every situation? My father used to call me a worry wart because I was always prepared with the right tool or device. I hated that term. My mother always said, “I’m just trying to be practical.” And she took the fun out of any adventure. After my father bought a boat and we had several near misses with disaster I resigned from his navy.

Because I am always out in the desert or up in the mountains off road exploring and having my kind of fun and usually out where there is no cell phone reception, I have a few precautions. I bring a shotgun and several 12 gauge marine distress flares. I bought a PLB, (Personal Locator Beacon) that bush pilots carry in case they are in trouble. I have a satellite phone and have had the impression that no matter what, I would be in capable hands in no time. One time we were out and about and a real emergency developed and it was my chance to test these pieces of safety equipment.

The incident happened in Death Valley on our way back from the “Racetrack” where under the right circumstances the rocks mysteriously move great distances and then are able to turn at a right angle and travel in another direction. We were near the Heebee Jeebie (Ubehebe) Crater and Scotty’s Castle, or thought we were. There was a four wheel drive vehicle that passed us and I remember thinking there was a warning about this type of vehicle might be top heavy and to be careful going around curves. Well this guy wasn’t. We came around a bend and there was a large amount of dust and a pair of headlights in a vertical position. Headlights are supposed to be arranged horizontal, but one was above the other amid the dust cloud. It was the same 4 Runner that passed us. I slowed and stopped and it was the same car and it had left the pavement and rolled. I quickly got out and looked inside to see if anyone was injured. The three occupants were shook up but no one was broken or bleeding. Their car was in bad shape and the engine was still running. One by one the driver climbed out and turned off the engine. The passengers squeezed out one at a time. It was obvious that they would need emergency service for the car as it was on its side with its windows broken from rolling on the rocks during its tumble off of the pavement.

I felt like I needed a Super Hero cape and costume as I was about to become the guy who saved the people. Two of them spoke no English and the driver barely did. They were tourists from Japan. The first item of business was to put the vehicle back on its wheels and survey the damage. There were no body parts without a dent from rolling on the rocks and no glass where there used to be windows. It was very lucky that no one was seriously hurt. I fastened a nylon choker strap on to the seat belt and connected the hook from my winch and then drove backwards and rolled the vehicle back on its wheels. One of the tires was flat. The next thing to do would be contact a tow truck. I got out my PLB which when activated, was supposed to signal a satellite and give a distress call and summon help. There is no way to convey whether we needed a can of gas, a gallon of radiator coolant, or an ambulance, or other kind of help. I followed the directions and raised the antenna and activated the red blinking light and hoped someone would be nearby enough to get the signal. While we waited I got out the Globalstar satellite phone which had never been tested. Since we were in the middle of Death Valley the thing couldn’t help but find a satellite, could it? ...or could it? The device has a set of bars similar to a cell phone which gives the signal strength of a satellite. As I understand it there are several satellites surrounding our planet and they are orbiting the earth and when one is contact, it will relay the signal to another one which I understand is similar to driving a car while talking on a cell phone while the signal goes from one tower to the next. There went my hero status. 

I had learned about satellite phones while we were in Australia and there is an off road magazine called “Explore OZ” which we found while we were Down Under. I learned a lot of things from Ozzies about equipment and off road gear. That was how I learned about the Globalstar satellite phone.

The bars on the phone indicated that we have “caught a bird” which I think is the term for contacting a satellite to relay to someone who could help. Way better than a CB radio which we thought were wonderful before there were other devices. I contacted the operator to describe the problem and got it partly out there and then we lost the signal. I had a map from the park headquarters which gives no details to tell where we were. I had an “ah ha” moment because I also had a GPS and could give coordinates. The problem is that while I kept calling back and trying to describe where in Death Valley we were, I kept losing the signal. The satellite phone was routed to a dispatcher at the CHP station in Bishop. By some miracle I looked and saw a vehicle with a blinking red light heading toward us. I assumed it was someone like a park ranger or someone who would help these poor people who had a very close call with disaster and destroyed their car.

At that time I was trying to figure out how to either remove the flat tire and replace it with the spare, or try to inflate it. The tire was not tight against the wheel, therefore it would turn without loosening the bolts. I was about to ask the driver to step on the brake to hold the wheel from turning so we could loosen the wheel and possibly have this person able to drive home.

The ranger arrived and was rather abrupt and wanted to know who owned the car and who the heck I was. I told him I was helping the poor chap and summoned the ranger or appointed person in such matters. He said it was reported that it was a roll over non injury accident, so why was the vehicle upright? I told him that I put it back on its wheels but hesitated to tell him by the looks of the vehicle it was obvious that it had rolled over 

several rocks and lost all of its windows. He could also have ascertained by looking at my truck and its winch that my truck could have rolled it back upright. The ranger looked at me as though I was a nosey gawker rubber neck ghoul and told me I “could go now.” I think that was cop talk for “beat it you stupid civilian.” Well, I did my part or at least tried to be a hero. We got back in the truck and left, believing the poor tourists from Japan would somehow be in good hands and recover from their bruises.

Back to safety devices. When we got home we naturally listened to our messages from when we were gone on our trip. One call to our land line was from the PLB company asking what our emergency was. It’s funny that we were in Death Valley when the call was made and they called our house for details???? There was another message on my cell phone saying they called and didn’t get an answer. I think that was why I resorted to using the PLB. I paid a lot of money for these devices and relied on them for what?

I found out that Globalstar was bankrupt and didn’t have enough satellites in their “constellation” to cover such places as Death Valley where there were no obstructions to interfere with the signal. Months later I read an email spam advertisement for satellite phones and learned that another system was called Iridium and they had been saved out of bankruptcy by the good old U.S. government. It seems they needed cell phones to fight another unnecessary war and had launched a lot of new satellites.

I decided to give that one a call and sign up. Over the course of a few years I discovered that the operators of the companies that served the system were unscrupulous and deceptive. I am now on my third such company and rate them a C- because everything started out fine and I was able to subscribe once a year and carry over my unused minutes at 60 cents per minute. The present system does not allow the carry over so it’s a “use it or lose it” proposition. They have also increased their rates. I continue to pay for it because I hope it works if I need it when I am out of cell phone reception.

I bought a Garmin “SPOT” device with the belief that my wife could look for me on her cell phone or computer. I thought it would be like the GPS trackers you see in the movies and on TV where you can “see” the target person on the move in real time. They are not real and don’t work that way. They will show a point in time where the target was and not is. It also requires steps to show it on the receiving end. They are expensive to subscribe to which costs as much as the device.

My devices are not present generation and lack all of the goodies. I have owned several GPS units and like a lot of things, they have become complicated by the application of other “features” such as the ability of walkie talkies and cameras. In my experiences I have never seen a walkie talkie with enough distance to make them worth carrying.

I subscribe to or am on several mailing lists for outdoor gear and clothing. One of the sites is “Adventure Alan” and he reviews lots of outdoor stuff and gives good reviews and ratings. I will attempt to include some of his findings.    ~ Jerry