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Technology Leads More Park Visitors Into Trouble

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Technology Leads More Park Visitors Into Trouble

Postby BSquared » Thu Aug 26, 2010 10:42 am

August 21, 2010
By LESLIE KAUFMAN
(New York Times)

Cathy Hayes was cracking jokes as she recorded a close encounter with a buffalo on her camera in a recent visit to Yellowstone National Park.

“Watch Donald get gored,” she said as her companion hustled toward a grazing one-ton beast for a closer shot with his own camera.

Seconds later, as if on cue, the buffalo lowered its head, pawed the ground and charged, injuring, as it turns out, Ms. Hayes.

“We were about 30, 35 feet, and I zoomed in on him, but that wasn’t far enough, because they are fast,” she recounted later in a YouTube video displaying her bruised and cut legs.

The national parks’ history is full of examples of misguided visitors feeding bears, putting children on buffalos for photos and dipping into geysers despite signs warning of scalding temperatures.

But today, as an ever more wired and interconnected public visits the parks in rising numbers — July was a record month for visitors at Yellowstone — rangers say that technology often figures into such mishaps.

People with cellphones call rangers from mountaintops to request refreshments or a guide; in Jackson Hole, Wyo., one lost hiker even asked for hot chocolate.

A French teenager was injured after plunging 75 feet this month from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon when he backed up while taking pictures. And last fall, a group of hikers in the canyon called in rescue helicopters three times by pressing the emergency button on their satellite location device. When rangers arrived the second time, the hikers explained that their water supply “tasted salty.”

“Because of having that electronic device, people have an expectation that they can do something stupid and be rescued,” said Jackie Skaggs, spokeswoman for Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

“Every once in a while we get a call from someone who has gone to the top of a peak, the weather has turned and they are confused about how to get down and they want someone to personally escort them,” Ms. Skaggs said. “The answer is that you are up there for the night.”

The National Park Service does not keep track of what percentage of its search and rescue missions, which have been climbing for the last five years and topped 3,500 in 2009, are technology related. But in an effort to home in on “contributing factors” to park accidents, the service recently felt compelled to add “inattention to surroundings” to more old-fashioned causes like “darkness” and “animals.”

The service acknowledges that the new technologies have benefits as well. They can and do save lives when calls come from people who really are in trouble.

The park service itself has put technology to good use in countering the occasional unruliness of visitors. Last summer, several men who thought they had managed to urinate undetected into the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone were surprised to be confronted by rangers shortly after their stunt. It turns out that the park had installed a 24-hour camera so people could experience Old Faithful’s majesty online. Viewers spotted the men in action and called to alert the park.

In an era when most people experience the wild mostly through television shows that may push the boundaries of appropriateness for entertainment, rangers say people can wildly miscalculate the risks of their antics.

In an extreme instance in April, two young men from Las Vegas were killed in Zion National Park in Utah while trying to float a hand-built log raft down the Virgin River. A park investigation found that the men “did not have whitewater rafting experience, and had limited camping experience, little food and no overnight gear.”

“They told their father that they intended to record their entire trip on video camera as an entry into the ‘Man vs. Wild’ competition” on television, investigators wrote.

Far more common but no less perilous, park workers say, are visitors who arrive with cellphones or GPS devices and little else — sometimes not even water — and find themselves in trouble. Such visitors often acknowledge that they have pushed themselves too far because they believe that in a bind, the technology can save them.

It does not always work out that way. “We have seen people who have solely relied on GPS technology but were not using common sense or maps and compasses, and it leads them astray,” said Kyle Patterson, a spokesman for Rocky Mountain National Park, just outside Denver.

Like a lot of other national parks, Rocky Mountain does not allow cellphone towers, so service that visitors may take for granted is spotty at best. “Sometimes when they call 911, it goes to a communications center in Nebraska or Wyoming,” Mr. Patterson said. “And that can take a long time to sort out.”

One of the most frustrating new technologies for the parks to deal with, rangers say, are the personal satellite messaging devices that can send out an emergency signal but are not capable of two-way communication. (Globalstar Inc., the manufacturer of SPOT brand devices, says new models allow owners to send a message with the help request.)

In some cases, said Keith Lober, the ranger in charge of search and rescue at Yosemite National Park in California, the calls “come from people who don’t need the 911 service, but they take the SPOT and at the first sign of trouble, they hit the panic button.”

But without two-way communication, the rangers cannot evaluate the seriousness of the call, so they respond as if it were an emergency.

Last fall, two men with teenage sons pressed the help button on a device they were carrying as they hiked the challenging backcountry of Grand Canyon National Park. Search and rescue sent a helicopter, but the men declined to board, saying they had activated the device because they were short on water.

The group’s leader had hiked the Grand Canyon once before, but the other man had little backpacking experience. Rangers reported that the leader told them that without the device, “we would have never attempted this hike.”

The group activated the device again the next evening. Darkness prevented a park helicopter from flying in, but the Arizona Department of Public Safety sent in a helicopter whose crew could use night vision equipment.

The hikers were found and again refused rescue. They said they had been afraid of dehydration because the local water “tasted salty.” They were provided with water.

Helicopter trips into the park can cost as much as $3,400 an hour, said Maureen Oltrogge, a spokeswoman for Grand Canyon National Park.

So perhaps it is no surprise that when the hikers pressed the button again the following morning, park personnel gave them no choice but to return home. The leader was issued a citation for creating hazardous conditions in the parks.
—B²



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Re: Technology Leads More Park Visitors Into Trouble

Postby rlown » Thu Aug 26, 2010 4:07 pm

Most of that story had nothing to do with technology being the problem. Moreso, how the "idiots" choose to use it, and the way in which permit vetting doesn't happen that well. I think this was covered somewhere on the topix before, in that there should be a seperate checklist if you're carrying a PLB or Spot. If one is just too stupid to heed the warnings during permitting, they should be fined.

I hope that group that called in for rescue 3 times was heavily fined. That's the kind of stuff the general visitor needs to hear before attemping such a trip or getting their permit.

edit: here was the proposed checklist: viewtopic.php?f=6&t=2748
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