Getting smart with your smartphone might just save your life in an emergency, writes Judy Whiteside, Editor of Mountain Rescue Magazine.
Like a real world Marauder's Map, the screens at the mountain rescue base show everyone involved in a search – where they are, every minute of the time they're out there on the hill, searching.
Every time the screen refreshes, every team member and every search dog and handler, identified by their individual call signs, moves a little further along their designated search area.
Hunkered down at base – warm and dry and availed of a kettle while their mountain rescue colleagues trudge across muddy fells in the pitch dark and the driving rain – the people fielding the radios and the telephones and any number of interruptions, liaising with the police, coordinating with ambulances and coastguard helicopters, keep a watchful eye on the myriad moving dots moving across the OS map.
That MRMap software – so akin to Harry Potter's magical map – was developed by Lakes team members Rob Brookes and Dave Binks. Over twenty years, it has changed the way mountain rescue teams work. And, eight years ago, it also inspired Russ Hore, then a member of Ogwen Valley MRO.
'MRMap worked for team members,' says Hore, 'but could we do the same for the people who call in needing our help?'
He started looking how he could get a GPS location from a phone. Within two or three hours he'd written a 'very simple bit of code'. That evening, he tested it with Brookes and it blossomed from there – SARLOC was born.
There are many apps for smartphones which show the phone's location, but these rely on the lost person having the app installed before they get lost. The beauty of SARLOC is that it uses the web browser installed on the smartphone to interrogate the GPS and locate the person, normally to within a few metres. No need to install a separate app.
PhoneFind – developed by John Hulse (also an Ogwen team member), in collaboration with Binks and fellow Lakes team member Jon Lynch – and launched this year for use by UK mountain rescue teams, offers the same location process, integrating the information into the incident logging software back at base.
How SARLOC and PhoneFind work
The rescue team simply sends an SMS text message with a link to a webpage. Clicking on this link opens a page in the phone's browser which queries the phone to identify its location. This data is then displayed to the user and automatically added over the internet to the MRMap database. So, whoever it is back at base with the kettle, handling the call-out, can see the casualty's location on the digital OS map display. And, more importantly, he or she can now instruct team members exactly which direction to head in.
The first successful use of SARLOC was in May 2011, when Llanberis team members were talking to a lost person 'somewhere on Snowdon'. They sent a SARLOC message and, within seconds, had a fix. They stopped the hill team, just walking out the door with a long search in prospect, and radioed the grid reference to the helicopter crew – who flew straight to the location, to hover directly above the casualty.
To date, SARLOC has been used at least 1600 times operationally in the UK. Its accuracy is consistently found to be between 10 to 50 metres.
Sally Armond, a dog handler with the Ogwen team, reckons Russ alone must have saved countless lives.
One particular incident sticks in the memory. In November 2011, two male walkers set off from Capel Curig to walk up Moel Siabod in very poor weather conditions. They had limited equipment and eventually became totally lost and disorientated in the cloud. As the light faded, they called for help but only had a vague idea of where they were. One of the gentlemen was a diabetic and feeling very unwell, so search parties were sent out immediately.
'The initial route information suggested they could be anywhere on the western side of the mountain from the summit to Pen y Gwryd, a potentially vast search area in such poor conditions. But thankfully, one of them had a smartphone, so we managed to fix their location using SARLOC.
'We quickly discovered they were on the eastern flanks, a long way away from where we were originally due to commence our search. I'd taken my search dog, Spin, but didn't need to use her at all! When we finally arrived, we found them soaking wet through and cold, while the diabetic gentleman was hypoglycaemic and on the edge of losing consciousness, unable to keep his eyes open.
'We were able to quickly get some oral glucose into him. He rallied sufficiently to carefully stand and eventually walk off the hill with assistance. By the time we got back to the road he felt fully recovered and warm, had full capacity and didn't wish to go to hospital so we left him in his friend's care, with advice to consume complex carbs as soon as possible and seek urgent medical attention if he began to feel unwell again.
'Without SARLOC, we'd have spent the night searching the wrong side of the mountain, and the outcome for this gentleman could have been very poor indeed.'
'When it doesn't work', says Hore, 'it's generally the phone that's the problem. It needs to be a smartphone, with a connection to the internet and the location services switched on'.
Or the lost person could be too badly injured to facilitate the process, even by that simple click of a link.
In early May, a hundred team members and nine search dog teams from across the north of England worked together, in challenging weather conditions, in the search for a missing fell runner. The 36-year-old man had become separated from his running mate while descending Red Pike attempting the third and fourth legs of the gruelling Bob Graham Round.
As thick cloud descended, and realising his partner had fallen behind him in pace, the second man retraced his steps up the fell but, after searching for some considerable time in worsening weather, reluctantly made his way to Black Sail Youth Hostel to raise the alarm.
Sixty team members from Cockermouth, Keswick and Wasdale teams searched all the obvious paths along the planned route – in a very wide potential search area – in strong wind, heavy rain and thick cloud.
Meanwhile, back at base, watching dots on a screen, those in 'Control' tried everything they possibly could to get a fix on the runner's location but, for whatever reason, they were unable to make contact.
'We're still not hundred per cent sure what happened,' says Andrew McNeil, Cockermouth team leader. 'We know he received the text but maybe he was too disorientated, maybe his phone (not a British mobile) wasn't compatible, maybe the reception was poor, maybe he didn't have location services switched on.'
Unable to elicit any further information and hampered by difficult conditions which prohibited the use of the Coastguard helicopter, the search was called off until first light – never an easy call to make. Three hours later, team members returned to the hill, their numbers bolstered by colleagues from Coniston, Kirkby Stephen, Northumberland National Park and Penrith teams.
The severely hypothermic runner was found at 7.30 am and flown to hospital, but sadly they were unable to resuscitate him.
Thankfully, such incidents are rare.
Running out of juice and data
But, here's another thing. Mountain rescue teams will always advocate that you set out well-equipped with a good old-fashioned paper OS map and compass, and develop the skills to use them – better and far more fun than relying solely on a smartphone for navigation purposes. Signal coverage can be hit and miss and batteries can quickly fade.
Maybe also think about carrying a spare battery or power bank for a big day out. Or, if you're walking in a group, keep one phone for emergency purposes.
'Injuries cluster around 3.30 pm,' says Rob Shepherd, Mountain Rescue England and Wales Statistics Officer and team member with Llanberis MRT, the busiest team in the UK last year with over 200 call-outs.
'Lost persons are a little later. And benighted persons later still, depending on the time of year'.
Chances are then, after a long day on the hill, navigating by smartphone, that by the time you make that call for help both you and it may be low on juice and data. And without juice and data, SARLOC won't work.
'I encounter so many informants and casualties where their phone is already down to 5% of battery life,' says Hulse.
'And a key point, of course, is the phone needs to be able to share its location data for us to make contact so it makes sense to know how to enable location sharing on your device before you set out, not at the point you become frightened or hurt. Make it part of your pre-trip preparation.'
So, just as wearing the appropriate clothing for the weather you might face, carrying the right kit and packing sufficient food and drink in your rucksack will make a good day on the hill even better, so too will making sure your phone is fully charged and set up, should the worst happen.
'We need to get the message out there,' says McNeil, 'that IN AN EMERGENCY (his caps), this technology could save your life.'
How to get smart with your smartphone
• Make sure you enable your smartphone's 'Location settings' feature BEFORE setting off.
• If you have internet access, the rescue team can send you a return message.
• Clicking on the link in the message will identify your location and assist the team in reaching you faster.
Read more UKC articles on smartphone use in the hills:
- Smartphones & Hills: Common issues and how to fix them
- Calling in Mountain Rescue
- Smartphones in the Hills: Pros, Cons and Tips
- How to Call Mountain Rescue