SHIFT: GPS — saving lives or encouraging risks?

Recently, two hikers were rescued off of Mt. Hood. They didn't have a GPS or personal locator, yet GPS technology saved their lives. Unable to figure out where they were in blizzard conditions, they built a snow cave to spend the night. Their cellphones didn't work because it was so cold. In a bit of unbelievable luck, they stumbled upon a geocache — you know, the hidden treasures located by GPS devices and techno-adventurers. After warming their cellphone batteries to an operable temperature and then using the GPS location information included with the geocache, the lost hikers were able to call out and give their exact location.

Those hikers were rescued thanks to technology. But here’s an interesting question: Is the availability of advanced technology luring people to take unnecessary risks?

Where in the World Are You?
In 2007, NOAA reports that 353 people were rescued with the aid of emergency signals sent through their Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking System: 235 of those were rescues at sea, 30 from aircraft, and 88 were from people using personal locator beacons. Once a satellite pinpoints a distress signal, the location is sent to either the U.S. Air Force or the Coast Guard. In 2007, 29,710 beacons were registered. Up-and-coming companies such as Zoombak and SPOT are privatizing the procedure. SPOT offers a monthly program with features that let your family track your adventures, and you can even send back a "The weather's fine, wish you were here" type message. Many critics are saying that the preponderance of these types of devices are encouraging people to throw caution to the wind and push further than they would on their own.

Weighing the Risks
Does knowing you have a spare tire in your car cause you to drive in places you'd normally avoid? Knowing you have health insurance, do you intentionally expose yourself to disease? Probably not. Having a means to summon help in the backcountry lets you get that help more reliably. A recent avalanche rescue reported by SPOT stressed the importance of a timely rescue. Instead of having to wait for someone to get down the mountain to report the disaster, one of the men was able to send a distress signal instantly, and rescuers were on their way in minutes. Without a doubt, GPS and satellite technologies make the backcountry safer. It’s even safer for the rescuers; without accurate location information, search-and-rescue parties may spend days in hazardous conditions, putting themselves at risk.

How Far Is Too Far?
So, does that mean that communications technology should blanket every square inch and our every moment in the wild? Before you vote, consider that you are standing on top of one of the most iconic landmarks in the world, and some guy is shouting into his cellphone, "GUESS WHAT? I’M ON TOP OF HALF DOME!"

Technology has its place, but some places are inappropriate. If it’s for frivolous purposes, leave your gadgets turned off. But, because they might save a life, be sure to pack them. You carry that spare tire, a flare on your boat, and a signaling mirror in your backpack. A safety net is always a good idea, but don't risk your life on it. Batteries fail, trees or canyon walls block satellites, and devices fall over cliffs. However, accidents do happen. People get injured, people get lost. Wouldn't it be better for everyone if when you got into trouble, help could instantly find you?

Wouldn't it be nice if instead of Search and Rescue, it could just be Rescue?