Remote area communications

 

This article provides information for parties visiting remote areas to make informed choices on systems suitable for communications, including during an emergency.  

Note: Communication/emergency alerting systems are no substitute for planning, good bush and navigation skills, appropriate fitness and sound leadership. Bushwalking and ski trips should be based on participant’s skills and experience, and the party should be of sufficient size and ability.  Meeting these basic requirements for safety should ensure the planned activity is safe and enjoyable. External assistance should not be required except for unusual or unexpected circumstances.

Consider your needs

Communication technology is rapidly changing and new communication methods and devices are constantly becoming available.   To help inform your choice of communications devices, first consider what you wish to use it for, including:
  • Keeping in touch with friends and family to reassure them that all is well
  • Communicating with other members of your party during a trip
  • Your family or friends being able to contact you while you in are in the bush
  • Alerting emergency services that you have a potentially life-threatening situation that requires immediate assistance
  • A mix of the above
You may choose more than one system to cover your needs. Having more than one system available improves your chances of successful communications.
Types of systems for remote area communications
The main types of communication systems for remote areas are:
  • Mobile telephones: two-way voice and/or SMS communication using terrestrial network (e.g. iPhone)
  • Satellite telephones: two-way voice and/or SMS communication using satellire network
  • Alerting and tracking devices: one-way communications using satellite-based tracking/alerting systems (e.g.  Spot, Personal Locator Beacons)
  • Handheld radios: two-way communication both within a group and with external operators (e.g.  CB radios)
  • Vehicle mounted radios:  two-way communication via radio which can include linking to the telephone network (e.g. UHF or HF radio)
Many portable devices available now are relatively lightweight, easy to use and most are available at a reasonable cost.
It is very important to test that your chosen communication systems operate correctly prior to commencing your journey.

Emergency communications

In the event you need to report an emergency situation, e.g. someone is seriously injured or in need of urgent medical help, or there is a threat of grave and imminent danger, please consider the following steps.

1. First option: Report emergency via 000 via mobile phone or sat phone, or mobile phone app

  • Always ask for Police.  Explain the situation. The Police will then arrange all necessary resources, including ambulance and aircraft
  • If you are lost and have decided to stay where you or you are with an injured person, call 000 without delay

2. Second (last) option: Actitvate PLB or send SOS message (e.g. via SPOT)

  • If you are unable to call 000 and you have a PLB or equivalent device, activate it.
  • Ensure you are in a clear open area and as high as possible to increase your visible area of sky for satellites. Steep, narrow gorges or overhanging foliage can prevent the device contacting satellites.
  • Once received, the alert is relayed via satellite to AMSA then referred the relevant Police authority for action.  In Victoria this is Victoria Police Search and Rescue Squad.
  • Police will check who the PLB is registered to and commence emergency procedures.

Note

  • Handheld and vehicle mounted radios should not be relied upon for emergency communications there is no guarantee that someone will be monitoring any CB channel during an emergency
  • PLBs are a one-way device – you do not get confirmation that your activation has been received by emergency authorities.

Mobile telephones 

Mobile phones can often be used for communications in the bush and other remote areas.  It is recommended that parties carry at least one mobile phone.  Do some research to determine which mobile phone will be the best for the places you are likely to use it.
Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
Some points to consider are:
  • The phone’s rating for good reception
  • The battery life of the phone – both standby and talk time.  A phone battery that only lasts a day is a major limitation
  • Inbuilt GPS and/or location services.  These can be used for reporting your location.
  • A waterproof or splashproof phone is highly desirable for outdoors use.
  • You can dial 000 from a locked phone
  • Phones can use any available network to place the Triple Zero call but callers may not be able to reach you if your particular provider’s network is not available. If this is the case, you not be able to place calls or send SMS to other phone numbers.
  • You cannot currently send SMS messages to 000.
Networks and carriers
A phone without network coverage is useless.   Several network operators service mainly cities and urban areas and have poor or non-existent coverage in remote areas.
  • In general, the Telstra NextG network has the best coverage, although call rates and data charges can be high.  
  • Some operators such as Aldi have roaming agreements with Telstra, however they may not get the full coverage or services offered by Telstra’s NextG network.
  • Check the coverage offered by network providers carefully before you select one.  Look for coverage maps rather than relying on “% of the population covered” statistics.
Phone usage
  • Keep the phone turned off when its not needed. Mobiles operating outside of network coverage will keep “polling” for a base station and will use more power.  You can also put the phone into “flight mode” which turns of the network connection.
  • Store the phone in a waterproof pouch that it can be also be used in, or buy a waterproof phone.
  • Turn off Bluetooth, WiFi and GPS functions if they are not needed to conserve power.
  • The GPS in some phones relies on the mobile network to render maps, while some phones have maps stored inside them.
  • Most maps in phones are not ideal for bushwalking as they don’t have enough detail.
  • If you don’t have reception it is worth walking onto a ridge or further onto a summit.
  • SMS messages use less power than talking; if your battey is low, send information via SMS
Smart phone applications
  • Australia’s Triple Zero Awareness Working Group has developed a smartphone app for iOS and Android devices. For more information see Emergency + Smartphone App
  • You can also install apps for tracking and reporting your location although this will only work when you have network coverage.
For more information see Mobile phones 

Satellite phones

Satellite phones (satphones) can be very useful for emergency communications – when they are able to connect via their satellite network.
inmarsat Satphone
Notes
  • The major advantage of a satphone is that you have two-way communications and can convey information about your situation by voice or SMS and respond to requests.  Unlike an PLB or Spot device, you get confirmation that your message has been received.  
  • Most satphones also now support email.  
  • Most Satphones now include a GPS that can be used to insert your coordinates into an email or sms.
  • SMS and email communications can be cheaper than voice communication.  
  • Some satphones have a dual mode and can operate via a mobile phone network if is in range. 
Disadvantages of a Satphone include:
  • You must acquire a satellite from the phone’s network provider for it to function.    Can be slow to acquire satellites and may not work under a dense tree canopy.
  • Calls to and from Satphones can be very expensive
  • The phone cannot send a distress message (like an EPIRB/PLB can) that is picked up by commercial and search and rescue aircraft
  • Depending on your phone make and model, you may need to apply firmware updates occasionally

For more information see Satellite phones.

Alerting devices, including Personal Locator Beacons (EPIRB)

Carrying an alerting device and/or a PLB is recommended for trips into remote areas, noting that they:
  • Are not a substitute for sound leadership and party strength
  • Are a last resort in cases of grave and immediate risk to life – not a first resort
  • May not be completely reliable in all circumstances – they won’t get a message out if they cannot contact the satellite network.

Alerting and Tracking Devices 

Devices such as the SPOT provided the ability to send predetermined customised messages with your location coordinates via SMS and email using a satellite network.
Spot 3
Messages and which contacts they are sent to are specified via a web page and are:
  • Track progress. Sends your location at regular intervals allowing your contacts to track your progress.
  • Check-in/OK.  “I am OK”
  • Help. For non life-threatening situation, assistance is required.  Emergency services are not notified.
  • Custom message.  Any message content (e.g. “Pick me up at this location”)
  • SOS. Injury or party is in grave and imminent danger. Equivalent to activating a Personal Locator Beacon. Notifies emergency services of your GPS location and that you need assistance.

Some devices such as the Spot Connect can be used in conjunction with a mobile phone to send customised email, SMS or social media updates.   However, if your phone battery goes flat the only option you have left is an SOS alert.

For more information see SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) 
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) can be carried and used to issue a distress alert via satellite and overhead aircraft in the event an emergency occurs in the field. They are sometimes referred to as Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) though this type of beacon is intended for Marine Use.
 Ocean Signal RescueMe PLB1
Features
  • Waterproof and have long-life batteries which last 5 to 7 years.
  • A PLB with a GPS is recommended to improve location accuracy
  • non-HAZMAT type batteries can be safely carried on commercial airliners
Notes
  • PLBs are a one-way device. The flashing red light when activated indicates the beacon is transmitting but does not confirm your activation has been received.
  • PLBs must now be registered at 406 Beacon information.
  • PLBs may be hired from some outdoor shops, GPS suppliers and Police Stations.   If you borrow or hire a PLB, make sure that the registered owner is aware of your route and timetable as they will be contacted by the Rescue Command Centre if the PLB is activated.
  • Use Test Mode prior to a trip to confirm the beacon is operational.  They should not be activated for testing.
  • Cannot be used for tracking progress or sending custom messages.

For more information see Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)

Handheld radios

Handheld UHF CB radios can be very useful for communications between members of a group.   They are cheap to buy and no licence is required to operate them.  The two modes of operating and handheld UHF CB are:

  • Simplex.  Direct communication between handsets – restricted to line of sight.
  • Duplex.  Utilises a radio repeater to rebroadcast a message sent on a particular channel to get wider coverage.

Uniden CB UHF radio

Notes

  • Handheld radios use the ultra high frequency (UHF) band and provide 80 channels.
  • Channels 1-8 and 41-48 are reserved for Repeater Output channels, with corresponding channels 31-38 and 71-78 for Repeater Input
  • Channel 5 is reserved for Emergencies, with 35 reserved for corresponding Repeater Input
  • Handsets with 2W power output is a realistic minimum for remote area usage. 5W handsets provide better range.  

For more information see

Vehicle mounted radios

Vehicle mounted radios provide good two-way radio communication due to the availabilty of a good power supply and antenna, but they are too heavy to be carried on foot.

A vehicle mounted HF radio can provide excellent range but a radio licence is required to operate it.  They may also include a facility for connecting to the telephone network (PSTN).

External links

Credits

  • Authors: Peter Campbell, Eric Krista
  • Some content was sourced from Communications for Bushwalkers (2009), Rik Head

Prepared and published: Bush Search and Rescue Victoria. A0002548Y. Date last updated: 12 March 2015. Version: Final