Backcountry cell phone use in emergencies; how to increase the chances of reaching help

Outdoors

MARQUETTE, Mich. (WJMN) – Michael Neiger, president of Michigan Backcountry Search and Rescue (MiBSar), shared some tips about what to do to if you need to call 911 when in the wilderness.

Neiger says the first important thing is to protect your phone when outdoors by keeping it in a case and in something waterproof. He keeps his phone in a plastic bag and a case to protect it.

“It’s really important when you go out to make sure it’s fully charged, I charge it fully top it off at home and then when I’m driving I top it off otherwise it’s running down while you’re driving,” said Neiger. “It’s also a good idea to have a spare battery or two that way you can take photographs and be on social media and not really worry about your battery too much but if you did have a problem or emergency you’ve always got a backup battery to get a full charge.”

There are several steps you can take before setting foot on a trail according to Neiger. Before heading out, make sure your phone is up to date and the GPS is calibrated in case you use maps on your device.

“If you were to get into trouble in the outdoors while a lot of times 911 can determine your position from the GPS coordinates,” said Neiger. “If you have difficulty or if you’re in an area where maybe the call center doesn’t have that technology it’s a good idea to be able to tell 911 or if you can’t get ahold of them and you can get ahold of somebody at home or one of your friends or some other entity it’s good to have an exact location and the best way to do that is with lat, lon coordinates.”

Apps that may be helpful to have on your cellphone in case of an emergency are compass apps, a flashlight app or mapping apps. Neiger says in addition to cell phones with service plans, non-serviced phones can also still call 911.

“Deactivated phones, in other words, phones with no service plan, by design I would say by rule or by law they’re made so that any phone as long as it’s charged up can reach 911,” said Neiger. “That’s even without service and even without a sim card so if you have an old phone around take the charger and put it in your car and if you got into a jam you could charge that phone up and use it to get ahold of 911.”

Some other tips include:

  • Keep your phone in airplane mode to avoid letting it continuously search for service and running down the battery.
  • Use battery saving modes to keep the battery conserved.
  • In the winter, keep the phone warm by storing it in an inner pocket.
  • In the summer, try to keep the phone from overheating.

When calling 911 Neiger says to wait a few seconds before hanging up if the call is taking some time to go through.

“If you do get through you want to give them your location first right up before you say anything just in case you get cut off for some reason a 911 operator can’t get a fix on your coordinates,” said Neiger. “It depends on who you’re talking to and what 911 service it is, usually they can get the GPS coordinates right off your call but if they can’t it’s really important to tell them where you are.”

Neiger also recommends saving some direct-dial emergency numbers for the area you are in including fire, police and EMS. Satellite phones will not work for calling 911, users must dial a direct dial number to reach help according to Neiger. Some 911 call centers can also respond to text messages if a phone call won’t connect.

After dialing 911, follow the 911 operator’s directions, stay dry, hydrated and stay in that location so that rescuers can find you and be ready to signal for help. Neiger says it’s likely that rescuers may come with drones, helicopters or on foot so signaling either by making noise or visually is important for helping them see you.

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