I’m frantically packing. Every item in front of me requires a decision. But I’ve been making decisions constantly—no, relentlessly—for a week already. I’m physically and mentally exhausted. I’ve been working almost non-stop for days on end at emptying my Georgia loft and I’m still not even close to being done. In the morning, I’ll get on a plane back to my Nevada home. Painters will descend upon the loft to overhaul my eclectic sense of color so I can get it listed and sold.
I’ve only got a few more hours to get every last object out before closing the door for the last time. My cell phone rings. I don’t recognize the Texas number so I ignore it. I don’t have time for robocalls and telemarketers right now. The phone rings again. Same number. “Leave me alone!” I say to myself. I ignore it again.
Another few rounds of this and there’s a lull. I keep going in full-beast mode tending to the lingering flotsam and jetsam in the loft. The phone rings again. Same number. It’s only at that point in my addled state that I answer the phone to see if I can put an end to the hassle.
A call from SAR
The call is from search and rescue services.
A calm female voice explains that they have received an SOS call from the inReach emergency satellite device that my dear man carries when he is out adventuring. The words I’m hearing are surreal. They don’t make sense. Yet they do because he’s co-leading a motorcycle trip in Baja, on the other side of the continent.
The flood of thoughts, possibilities, and outcomes is overwhelming in the few short seconds I’ve had to process the information. My head is spinning. I sit down with a thud in the one remaining chair in the loft.
I barely keep my voice from cracking with dread as I answer the kind lady’s questions. She attempts to piece together what his situation might be. I explain that the group is on a whale watching tour out of Guerrero Negro that day.
No, he doesn’t have any medical conditions. I don’t know the name of the tour company. No, I don’t have contact information for anyone else on the trip. I give her what little information I have: the name of the motorcycle company he is working with and the name of the other co-leader. Not a lot to go on. With that little bit of information, she assured me they would get back to me as soon as they knew more.
After hanging up, I know I need to have my freak out. I allow myself to be scared for a short time so I can move past it and work the problem as best I can from a few thousand miles away. I know there are about a million possibilities that aren’t catastrophic—including a false alarm. Yet I couldn’t get past knowing that it takes quite a bit of effort to activate the emergency signal on an inReach device. A false alarm seemed unlikely given the several steps necessary to send an SOS signal.
My thoughts race to the cracked screen on his inReach unit that we didn’t have time to get repaired before he left for Mexico. Could seawater have gotten in and caused the activation? It seems unlikely but I need the comfort of focusing on the non-catastrophic possibilities. I convince myself that if he deliberately sent the signal, it was to get help for someone else who was suffering a medical emergency.
The intensity of raw emotion drives me back to a place of reason. It’s the only place I can build a foundation to work the problem. It would consume me otherwise. So I attempt to get in touch with the owners of the motorcycle company my partner is working with. No luck.
I look up the online map where I can usually see the tracks of his travels, when his satellite tracker is on.
A bright red point in the waters of Laguna Ojo de Liebre shows where the device was when it sent out the SOS signal. But it doesn’t show any other data points for that day. It doesn’t make sense. I finally ping our friend Amy to help manage my nerves. She goes into full-Amy mode, calling every whale tour outfit in Guerrero Negro. Eventually she finds the right one and they have no reports of any issues. That’s somewhat comforting but there are still a lot of unpleasant possibilities.
Battling two fronts
About this time, my fabulous real estate agent is texting me about paint colors for the loft. My head feels like it might explode. I quickly give her the low-down and tell her I really don’t care at the moment which shade of boring white is best for a place I won’t be living in.
I dive back into problem-solving mode, my heart racing. After a while I realize there is nothing left I can do until I get more information. I watch his inReach map helplessly. It’s doing nothing. No updates to his track. I’m more confused. All I can do at this point is keep myself busy. I putter about trying to make some more progress on the loft. It feels useless as I muddle through, in a fog.
Then out of the blue a text comes in. It’s him. Just a few words to say he’s ok and will call as soon as he can. My phone rings. It’s search and rescue again—this time with good news. He’s safe, on land, and that it was a false alarm.
All in all, the whole ordeal took about an hour. One of the longest hours of my life.
I relay the news to Amy then sit for some time trying to let it all fall away in a daze of numbness, fatigue, adrenaline, and relief. All of the emotions of the ordeal and the previous week refuse to give way. The stress and adrenaline “squatting like a malevolent toad,” in my mind as a friend of mine likes to say.
Then the realization sinks in that I still have only a couple of hours to finish taming the chaos that still lies all around me. It has to be done. I don’t have the luxury of allowing myself to decompress properly. So I get back to work, waiting to hear his voice again and not knowing when that will be but needing that absolute confirmation and comfort.
That call comes later as I’m out and about dropping off donations and shipments. The relief is extraordinary. He apologizes over and over for scaring the shit out of me. Of course, that’s not what I care about. He’s safe. That’s all that counts.
The inReach device has a multi-stage activation process. You have to unlock the slider switch, hold down the SOS button, then confirm you want to activate the emergency signal. Seems tough to send a false SOS, yes?
In this case, his inReach unit was clipped onto the outside of his jacket and he was wearing a PFD—a life jacket—over his regular jacket. It seems that the repetitive motions of the boat slowly caused the PFD to move the slider switch into the active position then put enough sustained pressure on the SOS button to complete the activation process. Some time passed before he knew a call for help had been sent in error and he was able to cancel the call.
An actual rescue with helicopters, boats, and Mexican Marines was never launched. But it was probably pretty close. We suspect that the satellite data the monitoring company has access to showed a speed and trajectory to his track that was consistent with being on a fast boat heading towards land, so they were conservative in responding. That location data was information I didn’t have access to on my end, leaving me flailing for answers.
Of course, we always learn how to refine our processes with experiences like this. For our future excursions, together or apart, it’s clear we need to make sure someone always knows our intended locations and what outfitters we’re using, if possible. Having alternate contact info is clearly important as well.
What does having that information change in an emergency scenario? It doesn’t help prevent an incident. But having more people on the team to help understand what’s happening and get help to a loved one as quickly as possible can be crucial. It gives responders more actionable information.
When you’re on the receiving end of that phone call with no information to go on, you don’t know if you just need to sit tight or be on a plane to Baja that instant. Having more conduits for information can keep you from reacting too quickly. Or not quickly enough.
In this case, he’s done this trip many times before and I knew he was surrounded by other people so I knew he had help if he needed it. That kind of personal emergency would result in a call from his co-leader, though. The search and rescue scenario caught me off guard entirely. It’s a very different ball game, especially when on a boat, with a group, in a foreign country.
Glitches and positioning
I discovered in researching this issue, that the older inReach units may have a quirk that allows the SOS to be activated accidentally, as seen in this video. I tested both of our devices and I believe they’re newer units than those shown in that video. Ours lock down very well when done properly. It does take practice and a certain technique to put the slider switch into that “clicked” and truly locked position the video mentions. Neither of us was getting that right. That’s why his slider was able to be moved into the active position.
As for where to carry the device, I clip mine to the outside of my packs and jackets so it’s always handy. I figure if there’s a problem in which I need to use it, digging around in a pack to find it or retrieving it from my motorcycle tank bag isn’t an option. That’s why my inReach stays on my body. Now realizing the importance of keeping pressure off of the buttons, I’m even more diligent about placement.
If you’re using one of these or are considering one, think about where you position the device and make certain that slider switch is truly locked.
In spite of the false alarm ordeal, I still consider this a fabulous tool. Had it been an actual emergency, I’m glad he had this resource. Life is full of risk whether you are adventurous or not and we live in a remarkable age of technology that helps us manage those risks.
So keep those devices away from potential false activation scenarios and adventure on, friends!
[UPDATE: the Garmin inReach has undergone many design changes since this incident making this activation scenario no longer possible.]