Question re 911 calls

Nobody has mentioned VHF radios, which are useful in coastal situations for contacting the coast guard - maybe of limited use inland, though.

Not on topic - rock climbing
I hate to comment outside of the original question but in rock climbing, everyone is taught that you cannot expect to be rescued. You must prepare for self-rescue.

In regards to the question in the OP, do not expect the 911 operator to know your location. Plan for the worst.


What would YOUR SELF rescue approach be in this predicament?

VHF advantages
VHF are useful inland if they are considered “navigable waterways” by the USCG. At least as far as I know.

One of the best things about VHF radios is that if a vessel is standing a radio watch on channel 16, like they are supposed to, and they are within range, they are obligated to render assistance. And may relay that communication to the USCG and other vessels. Additionally, the USCG and employ radio direction finding to locate you based on your signal.

Do what you can
True-- the only cure is surgery. But you should be equipped to keep the patient protected from the elements while waiting for help.

Or you could try to move them to help. You can improvise a litter for carrying or make a raft with kayaks to float them closer to help.

There’s always something you can do.

Remember Hopalong Cassidy ?
This is Hoppy too.

in my area we do not
have advanced 911 so the call will not be located.

In addition to this some of the time the 911 call trips a tower in Canada and one might find themselves talking with a canadian operator that will not recognize descriptions of location.

The sheriff"s department publishes a cell phone number for the county that is better to use than 911. The number hooks you up with the 911 operator.

Self rescue is the first rescue option
Are you promoting a philosophy of NOT trying to self rescue first or NOT preparing for paddling by learning self rescue techniques? The response is just not clear to me.

Read Touching the Void. There was no 911 to call to make and there were serious injuries involved. To a climber, especially a mountaineer, the expectation is that you self rescue or you die. That’s just the way it is sometimes.

A call to 911 should be a last resort, not a first. That’s the way it should be for paddlers an anyone else taking on a risky endeavor.

So back to the OP, assume that 911 does not have your location if you can reach them. Assume that you might not reach 911 operators if you want to be better prepared mentally.


911 needs Roads - no road uh well…oops
I’ve paddled places where there are no roads nearby.

Swampy, marshy places where you CAN’T walk, drive, etc.

Sadly many local Public Safety people need “hours”

to get a boat in the water with trained personnel.

First Responder classes are a GREAT idea for those

organizing paddles, and keeping a “quickie” med kit

in a dedicated dry bag for crisis emergencies.

Learn Wilderness First Aid with tree limbs,

shredded t-shirts to make bracing, pressure cloths,

and improvised medical care, think uniquely.

It is admirable when a person is prepared to self rescue.

Since I am feeling a bit like typing today - let’s assume that that particular climber was in a more isolated setup requiring a technical approach and experienced a compound fracture. Since he was not free soloing, there was a partner. Unfortunately in an injury of that sort a partner wouldn’t be too much help in effecting a non-assisted evacuation - where the victim and rescuer get themselves out of a bind without external help. Without any means to contact emergency services, such as mobile phone or satellite messaging, the only option for the rescuer would be to hike out and contact rescue services, which would put the victim through extra stress.

Contacting 911/rescue service MUST be a rescue option. And, it is always an option played out in all the kayak rescue training scenarios that I’ve been in or put together.

BTW, a couple years back SK Mag published a story of some folks getting a bit too close to ice in Alaska. Some pieces fell, one person got badly hurt. The only means of contact that the group had was VHF, which was of a very limited use in fjord like setup, and the nearest help was a long paddle away. The ultimately tragic outcome might’ve been avoided if paddlers possessed PLB or satellite phone, but we will never know.

Scoop on 9-1-1
I work in a 911 center in a major metropolitan area.

If your phone is equipped with a GPS unit, it will activate if you call 911. Generally speaking, your options are a) have it on all the time, b) have it off except when calling 911.

When you call 911 with a GPS equippped device, part of the packet of info that is sent to the cell phone tower is your location, if your phone is able to send one. If it isn’t, then the cell phone towers in the area will attempt to triangulate your location using multiple towers. If only one tower is able to lock on to your signal, then it will give the location of the cell phone tower. This is not reliable information, as I have received calls from 40 miles away bypassing severeal cell phone towers for some reason, and landing on a tower in my city.

Each cell phone provider is responsible for beign compliant with government regulations concernint location services. Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint have all been fairly good about keeping up with government deadlines, but none of them were ready when the initial deadline came about, and extensions were filed. T-Mobile is the worst, and to my knowledge are still having problems, years later.

When we receive a call from a cell phone with GPS technology, we will get an X/Y coordinate with an uncertainty rating from 0 (meaning the system is absolutely sure that this phone is calling from this exact X/Y) to any number… usually up to 10,000 - meaning the system believes the X/Y coordinate to be accurate to within that number of feet… obviously, 10k feet isn’t very accurate, it’s almost 2 miles.

We have the capability to ‘RTX’ which polls the cell phone tower for an updated location which could possibly narrow down the uncertainty (as well as keep track of someone on the move.)

We have a large park in our city that is mostly forest, with a river, wooded walking trails and miles of mountain bike trails. We frequently get people calling who are lost or injured, and we use that GPS location along with google maps to direct our responders to the callers. We are in the process of installing a new CAD (computer aided dispatch) that integrates the GPS phone data with our own city maps as well as Bing maps. Not a lot of smaller agencies have technology capable of this, but at the least they should be able to use an X/Y coordinate with google maps to find a ballpark location.

Thanks, Buck

– Last Updated: Aug-19-12 11:36 AM EST –

Thanks for explaining based on your work experience.

A simple question.
If a ‘regular’ call cannot be made, will the 911 call still go through?

We paddle in many areas where the river flows are in deep valleys and cell phones are generally useless.

probably not
A 911 call still requires the regular cell phone signal, and uses the same towers, it just routes the call to a 911 ‘trunk’ which goes directly to the PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) that manages the tower that your signal landed on.

One good thing to think about though, is that if you are ONLY carrying the phone for 911 emergencies, you can carry an old non-smart phone that you don’t use anymore. Cell phones are required to be able to call 911 even if they aren’t activated with a carrier. Just make sure it has a charge… then you can dial any number and it will actually take you to 911 regardless of the number you dial. You won’t be able to call anyone else or access any kind of data, but if you’re concerned about your iPhone taking a dunking and not working any more, you can leave it behind, and carry your old LG Chocolate (which probably has a more robust phone radio than your iPhone anyway) with a full charge, whip it out in an emergency, and reach the nearest 911 agency.

If you’re getting into areas where there is no reception and you need a phone with a signal for your peace of mind, consider renting a satellite phone, which can get a signal just about anywhere on earth. I’m not exactly sure how (or even if) they work with local 911 PSAPS, since they don’t go through the regular phone system.

A program started in NH to encourage personal responsibility:


Hiker Responsibility Code

You are responsible for yourself, so be prepared:

  1. With knowledge and gear. Become self reliant by learning about the terrain, conditions, local weather and your equipment before you start.

  2. To leave your plans. Tell someone where you are going, the trails you are hiking, when you will return and your emergency plans.

  3. To stay together. When you start as a group, hike as a group, end as a group. Pace your hike to the slowest person.

  4. To turn back. Weather changes quickly in the mountains. Fatigue and unexpected conditions can also affect your hike. Know your limitations and when to postpone your hike. The mountains will be there another day.

  5. For emergencies. Even if you are headed out for just an hour, an injury, severe weather or a wrong turn could become life threatening. Don’t assume you will be rescued; know how to rescue yourself.

  6. To share the hiker code with others.

    hikeSafe: It’s Your Responsibility.

    The Hiker Responsibility Code was developed and is endorsed by the White Mountain National Forest and New Hampshire Fish and Game.


standing a radio watch
on Channel 16 is required only of commercial vessels.

Many pleasure craft do leave 16 open but it’s pretty random how much it’s monitored.

MIght be a good idea
to always have at least two experienced paddlers along. As a practical matter all these skill we are talking about are learned and develop with experience. If you have people in your care who are inexperienced and exposed to some potential dangers that they do not fully understand are not prepared to handle alone it seems to me you have a responsibility to anticipate the possibility that they might come to harm if something happened to you and they were left alone. Most of the potential troubles evaporate if you have someone along who is experienced and knows the area you are paddling in. There are dangers in life that we all accept and control. The problem for me is when you are learning and you are not even able to perceive the risks you take. That is when you really need someone with you.

Radio watch rules
Radio Watchkeeping Regulations

In general, any vessel equipped with a VHF marine radiotelephone (whether voluntarily or required to) must maintain a watch on channel 16 (156.800 MHz) whenever the radiotelephone is not being used to communicate.

Source: FCC 47 CFR §§ 80.148, 80.310, NTIA Manual, ITU RR 31.17, 33.18, AP13 §25.2

In general, the reference to a “radiotelephone” is your radio.

This is pretty cut and dried as to who needs to stand a radio watch. If it’s there, a radio watch needs to be stood. Even though many pleasure craft don’t adhere to these rules, they are still the rules. Additionally, if the radio isn’t on, it’s useless.

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