Emergency Communications for Remote Travel

Getting Help When You Need It Most

We love to take our motorhome to some of the remotest places in Australia, we like the solitude and the feeling of isolation. I realise that this type of exploration is not for everyone, but the reason most people travel in motorhomes and caravans is to explore Australia outside of towns and cities. This is great, but what happens when something goes wrong? In this article I would like to look at a number of methods for communicating or requesting assistance when traveling in a remote area.

Before we do this, let’s settle on four very different reasons that we might need to contact someone.

  1. Urgent medical attention is required. This is the most pressing need for urgent assistance – something life threatening has happened and we need urgent medical help.
  2. Non-urgent assistance is requested. Perhaps the vehicle is bogged or the battery is flat and cannot be started.
  3. I need information – I have a spare fan belt, but I am not sure how I go about replacing it.
  4. I am OK – I am checking in at this location – no need to worry.

The six devices evaluated

  1. Standard mobile phone
  2. Satellite mobile phone
  3. Satellite internet / VoIP
  4. EPIRB
  5. SPOT Satellite messenger
  6. HF Radio

For one reason or another, we have all of these devices with the exception of an HF radio set, onboard our motorhome.


1. Standard Mobile Phone

We all have one and wonder how we ever managed without them. This dependence is really only painfully evident when we are unable to use our mobile phone – for example when we are out of range of a cell tower. Telstra Australia owns the largest mobile phone network in the country. The NextG network covers far more of Australia than any other land based mobile phone network. However, despite all the hype about coverage, the NextG network covers only a tiny percentage of the country. If you want to “go bush” and be sure to be able make contact with somebody in an emergency, you are going to need something better than a standard mobile phone.

Positives Negatives
  • Low purchase cost
  • Fairly low ongoing costs
  • Very portable
  • Usage based pricing (pre-pay)
  • You can call anyone for anything
  • You already have one
  • Incoming calls are possible
  • Very limited coverage outside populated areas
  • Useless when there is no signal




2. Satellite Phone

iridium-9505a-satellite-phone

These are getting smaller, lighter – but not much cheaper. Expect to pay up to $2,500 for a new Satellite phone. The coverage is excellent.  Using low earth orbit satellites, these phones can make and receive calls from almost anywhere that you are able to see a reasonable portion of the sky.  Like all forms of satellite communications discussed here, they need a direct line of sight to the satellite. This means going outside – it also means that they will not work reliably in tight spaces like gorges or even cities with high-rise building all around.




Positives Negatives
  • Works almost anywhere
  • You can call anyone for anything, you can describe the exact nature of your emergency and perhaps get immediate help.
  • Small and portable
  • Incoming calls are possible
  • Expensive to purchase.
  • High on-going costs (minimum of about $30/mth)
  • Will not work inside motorhome or caravan.
  • Calls are very expensive
  • Data plans are extremely expensive




3. Satellite Internet / VoIP

ANT

Taking the Internet with you when you go bush is now possible thanks to satellite communications and Australian Nomad Technologies (ANT). While not being particularly small, they are quite portable.  Using a satellite dish and a computer, you can now connect to the internet from almost anywhere. Again, this system of communication needs a direct line of site to a particular satellite located in the northern sky. Setup takes between 10 and 20 minutes and once operating the system will allow you to send emails, browse the web and make VoIP (voice over IP) phone calls.


Positives Negatives
  • Works almost anywhere
  • You can call anyone for anything, you can describe the exact nature of your emergency and maybe get immediate help
  • High speed data –for example,  you can send photos of the problem and even receive video back of the solution. You can search the internet for your own solution
  • Fairly low operating costs
  • Very low cost phone calls
  • Fairly costly to purchase.
  • Takes time to setup
  • Large dish required (900mm)
  • Variable quality of voice calls



4. EPIRB

gme-410-epirb

This device is most commonly used by boat owners and was originally designed to summon urgent help to stricken vessels at sea.  EPIRBs are also carried by land based travellers like us, partly for use on our small boat – but also as a method to beckon urgent assistance in an emergency. An EPIRB is a simple “activate and wait” device and should only be used in a life threatening situation. Once activated, the beacon is able to continuously signal for assistance for several days.



Positives Negatives
  • Works almost anywhere
  • No ongoing costs
  • Very small and portable
  • Very simple quick to deploy
  • Fairly expensive to purchase.
  • No ability to communicate the nature of the emergency – (should they bring a tractor or anti-venom?)
  • No ability to get any immediate assistance (can’t ask advise)
  • Cannot be used for anything other than life threatening situations
  • No feedback  (you have no idea who or if anybody is on their way).
  • Depending on the model of EPIRB used, the device may only indicate your approximate location.



5. SPOT Satellite messenger

spot2This is the new kid on the block. The SPOT device is very small and extremely portable and is very well protected against the elements. It is aimed at the adventurous types who like to climb mountains and take kayaks to faraway places – but it is also very well suited to us (slightly less adrenalin driven) motorhome and caravan travellers. The SPOT messenger will function almost anywhere in Australia (most of the world is in fact covered) and one of its unique features is that it will send “I’m OK” messages as well as “send help”. In fact, you can send a range of predefined messages using the SPOT messenger.  Each message dispatched is prefixed with your exact latitude and longitude and messages can be delivered by email and/or SMS text message to a number of predefined recipients (Emergency messages are routed directly to the appropriate rescue organisation).


Positives Negatives
  • Works almost anywhere in Australia and most of the world
  • Very small and portable
  • Very simple and quick to deploy
  • Can send “I’m OK” messages so you can check in with family
  • Can request help in non-life threatening situations
  • Sends exact location with each message
  • Low setup cost
  • Fairly low operating costs
  • No message delivery confirmation
  • One way communication only




6. HF Radio

ic-m700pro

This method of communications is by far the oldest. HF radio has been used in Australia since the pioneering days of outback colonisation. The large antenna often mounted on the front bull bar of a vehicle is a sure sign that an HF radio lies at the other end of the coax cable. Don’t let HF radio’s age fool you; the grandfather of the pack has done a fine job of keeping up with the youngsters by adding some high-tech features. Options  like GPS location sending, person-to-person calling by tone, dial-out to standard telephones are all now possible with modern HF Radio sets.  It is also possible to send messages via SMS and even email.  Despite all this functionality, HF radio’s Achilles heel is that is terrestrial based and it relies on the propagation of radio signals from one ground station to another. This means that due to atmospheric conditions, you may not always be able to contact the person or service you are trying to speak with.  Once, when we were in the far reaches of outback Queensland a fellow traveller tried for 3 days to demonstrate the “dial-out to telephone” feature of his HF radio – for 3 days atmospheric conditions meant the demonstration failed. That is a long time to wait with a broken leg.


Positives Negatives
  • Works almost anywhere in Australia
  • Two way voice communication and potentially (very slow) data
  • Can request help in non-life threatening situations
  • Can send exact location with each message or periodically
  • Moderate operating costs
  • Large friendly network of users
  • Calls between HF systems are free
  • Can receive incoming calls
  • Expensive initial setup
  • Some technical knowledge required
  • Large external antenna required
  • Not 100% guaranteed to make contact with desired person


Conclusion –

So which device is best suited to caravaners and motorhomers?  Unfortunately, the answer is “it depends” …  it depends on :

  • Where you are going (if there is 100% mobile phone coverage – you are already sorted)
  • What you will be doing (it is hard to go kayaking with a satellite dish on your back)
  • Who you want to contact
  • What you need in response  (just advice on how to fit the replacement fan belt or a helicopter with snake anti-venom hovering overhead)

If all you need is a device that will summon some form of help in life threatening situations, any of the satellite based devices will do the job. Due to its small size, low initial and low ongoing costs, I like the SPOT device. Its ability to very quickly send “I’m OK” messages at no extra cost gives it a big advantage.  If you need the full range of communications (email, voice and web), the ANT portable satellite internet system is the only way to go.

For more info about :

Satellite phones – http://www.telstra.com.au/mobile/networks/network_info/satellite.cfm

Satellite Internet – http://ausnomadtech.com.au

EPIRB Use and registration – http://beacons.amsa.gov.au/index.html

SPOT Satellite Communicator – http://www.findmespot.net.au/

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4 Responses to “Emergency Communications for Remote Travel”

  1. Dicky Saputra Says:

    fair enough to read to know positives and negatives side of the equipments produced, helpfull to help making decision

  2. Tony LEE Says:

    DeLorme has a satellite tracker/2-way communicator that is more expensive than Spot, but which overcomes all of the disadvantages of Spot. We have had both and for our purposes, there is no comparison.

  3. Hobo Says:

    I have just had a look at these – they look really good. The monthly cost is a bit high but probably well worth it if you are traveling remotely. The SPOT is much cheaper for tracking – it costs us just $150/yr for unlimited track points.

  4. Graham Comber Says:

    You DONT have to take out a 24 month satphone plan !.

    True that the initial purchase cost of a satphone is high but it is NOT necessary for there to be any monthly fees.
    It is a little known fact that a Telstra satphone will work with the sim card from your Telstra mobile. if need be.

    Note that these calls are quite a bit more expensive per minute than those made with a satphone on a 24 month plan however if you just use it for urgent voice calls or emergencies it is far far cheaper.

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