Bushwalking Rescue: Emergency Communications by Cell or Mobile Phone

What sort of mobile phone do I need? Which service providers should I use? How should I ensure adequate signal strength? What number should I call?  When should I call 112? When should I call 000? What information should I have ready?

 I’ve sometimes been surprised about how good mobile (cell) phone reception is when you have  line of sight.  Frenchman’s Cap in the central highlands of Tasmania to Mt Wellington, Hobart…70 km.  Is it possible? With such good reception then  the mobile phone becomes a viable communications tool for rescue. You can check reception in advance by viewing the service providers coverage maps, but these won’t show isolated locations where reception is exceptionally poor or surprisingly good, usually due to local terrain.

Choosing the right mobile phone is important if you want to use it for emergency communications. You must choose a phone with a decent internal antenna and these are referred to by Telstra as “blue tick” phones which means they are suitable for regional  reception areas in contrast to metro use only. You must choose a service provider which has good regional coverage and Telstra has the best coverage by far. If you are a serious bushwalker who wants to be able to use their mobile phone for communication in the wilderness then you have no choice!

How do you know if your signal strength is adequate for a call? 

Most of us can read the signal strength indicator, but this can be annoying as you continually have to take the mobile out of your pocket to check the symbol. If you have an iPhone, there is an app which will tell when you have moved into an area with adequate signal strength, even if the phone is in your pocket.

No Signal: No cell service? In a dead zone? want to be notified when you can make calls again without taking the phone out of your pocket? 

If you need to make an emergency call and don’t have adequate signal strength then the best thing to do is to head for high ground. While you may not have voice communication you may be able to send an SMS. If reception is poor be aware that you phone will turn up the power in order to get reception and this could flatten you battery prematurely. Leave your phone turned off unless you need it.

Dial Triple 000 NSW Police

If you have a recent mobile phone, you may be able to dial triple zero 000 to get emergency help from any nearby service provider. The better alternative, if you have an older phone is to dial 112, the internationally recognized emergency number. This number allows you phone to roam between service providers and to get the best service available.eg if you use Optus or Virgin then dialing 112 will allow you to use whichever tower is closest, most probably Telstra. It also allows someone finding your phone to call even when it is locked or turned off. A good reference is on the Australian Communication  and Media Authority’s  website Calling the Emergency Call Service from a mobile phone: FAQs

What information should I have ready for the emergency call service operator? 

Well, one obvious thing they will want to know is your location and they won’t want a grid reference. You must be able to give them latitude and longitude, which is available from your map or GPS if you know how to get it or perhaps you can convert it if you have the appropriate iPhone  app .

Map Tools: utility that lets users fully utilize coordinates. Converts between datums, including AGD66, AGD84,GDA94, NZGD49, coordinate systems, and map projections and calculates distances.

It is a relatively simple task to change the units on you GPS so they give lat & long instead of grid references. It’s not difficult to read the latitude  and longitude from your map.  Next best is to give them the distance and direction to a prominent feature nearby.

What information will they need from you?

The St John’s Ambulance suggests their staff should collect the following information:

Type of Incident
• Caller name and call back number
• Location of incident and where possible a location name
• Map reference
• Radio Communications/Frequencies
• Number of patients
• Medical category applied to tasking (SJA use)
• Diagnosis / presenting problem
• Patient details if available
• Type of injury or illness
• Type of terrain and hazards (ie. high tension or power lines)
• Weather conditions in the area
• Identify any obvious landmarks or potential landing sites

See also  Emergency Call-ins  This article provides a structure for emergency contacts in bushwalking clubs and schools to respond to callers.  

This section is from the Outdoor Action Program’s Guidelines for Handling Emergency Situations and is not contained in The Backpacker’s Field Manual. Copyright © 1999, all rights reserved, Rick Curtis, Outdoor Action Program, Princeton University and Random House Publishing, New York.

Have you had any experience using a mobile phone to summon emergency help? Let us know how it worked for you, by commenting.

Creative Commons License
This article by Bush Walker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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