The SNEWS View: Help me…I'm having a stupid moment

Now dubbed Yuppie 911, personal locator beacons are helping too many unprepared folks seek their inner Indiana Jones. We have a few suggestions for features manufacturers could consider to help these people avoid stupid moments.

Since their introduction, personal locator beacons, such as the SPOT (pictured) which debuted in 2007, have been embraced by growing numbers of consumers that appear to want to find their inner Indiana Jones — but only as long as they have a security blanket…their electronic binky to make bad moments seem less scary.

Can’t find water while on a Grand Canyon backpacking trip? Just push a button and it will be delivered by personal waiters in helicopters, disguised as official rescue workers. Don’t like the taste of the water the next day? Well heck, that waiter button worked so well the first time, push it again for a delivery of some fresh H2O. While that may seem far-fetched, it’s not. Perhaps you recently read about two men and their teenage sons who pushed the “panic” button three times in a span of just three days while on the Royal Arch Loop in the Grand Canyon. Each time, rescue helicopters and crews were mobilized, risking their lives to save the lives of others who, as it turned out, were really only at risk of being too stupid to be outside in the first place. Which is why, after the third panic call, rescuers said, “Enough already!” According to a park service report, they took the four out and cited the leader for “creating a hazardous condition” for the rescue teams. It’s apparently gotten so bad that search and rescue teams in California now have a new nickname for personal locator beacons: “Yuppie 911.”

Now, I’m the first to advocate the personal locator beacons, like the SPOT, as wonderful tools in the right hands. Just go to the official SPOT incident report page and you’ll be able to read tale after tale of how the SPOT has helped to save lives — click here. And, realizing life’s adventures are as much about detailing the trip as preparing for a possible emergency, SPOT has wisely created a SPOT Adventures page (click here) where users can upload photos, log their trips as recorded on a SPOT, and allow friends and family members to track their progress on an adventure. Pretty cool. But, as with all useful things, there are those who will suffer stupid moments, such as our Grand Canyon friends. It is worth noting that even the venerable 911 emergency system continues to get used by idiots. There are documented calls from individuals to 911 demanding police intervention to stop one neighbor’s house being painted a color the other neighbor does not like…Yup, these are stupid people, indeed.

It is because of people like this, that we think the good folks at SPOT need to add a few more features to their beacons:

  1. First, feature a credit card swipe. Yes, that’s right. Some folks — though not all, I’ll grant you — seem to get a whole lot smarter when their own money is involved. Before every trip, the only way to activate the SPOT device will be to swipe that Visa, MasterCard or American Express. No credit card? No activation!
  2. The second feature will be a small LED screen that turns on once the device has been activated. Based on location, it will ask the user to confirm they have sufficient skills and training to be able to leave the house without a personal assistant to tuck them in at night and help them find their way back home again.
  3. And, for the final feature, when the 911 button is pushed, there will be audible requests — in a very polite voice with a British accent, of course, since everyone knows that even when being insulted by a Brit, you still feel good about yourself — that might say:

Will features like the above eliminate all stupid moments in locator beacon history? Probably not. But at least we can rest easy knowing the next time a personal locator beacon gets triggered on the second floor of an IKEA showroom, it really is an emergency. Someone has likely been wandering helplessly among towering bins of red wastebaskets for hours and can’t find the way back to the main entrance.

–Michael Hodgson