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Originally published Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 12:24 AM

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Wilderness rescuers fear 'Yuppie 911' makes calling for help too easy

Personal locator beacons have made it easier to call for help from the wilderness, and rescuers are critical of users who may risk rescuers' lives with sometimes trivial aid calls.

The Associated Press

Two men and their teenage sons recently tackled one of the world's most unforgiving summertime hikes: the Grand Canyon's parched and searing Royal Arch Loop. Along with bedrolls and freeze-dried food, the inexperienced backpackers carried a personal locator beacon — just in case.

In the span of three days, the group pushed the panic button three times, mobilizing helicopters for dangerous, lifesaving rescues inside the Arizona canyon's steep walls.

What was that emergency? After they ran out of water, the only water they had found to quench their thirst "tasted salty."

"Yuppie 911"

Technology has made calling for help instantaneous even in the most remote places. Because would-be adventurers can send GPS coordinates to rescuers with the touch of a button, some are exploring terrain they do not have the experience, knowledge or endurance to tackle.

Rescue officials are deciding whether to start keeping statistics on the problem, but the incidents have become so frequent that the head of California's Search and Rescue operation has a name for the devices: Yuppie 911.

"Now you can go into the backcountry and take a risk you might not normally have taken," says Matt Scharper, who coordinates a rescue every day in a state with wilderness so rugged even crashed planes can take decades to find.

"With the Yuppie 911, you send a message to a satellite and the government pulls your butt out of something you shouldn't have been in in the first place."

It's a growing problem facing the men and women who risk their lives when they believe others are in danger of losing theirs.

Technological help

From the Sierra to the Cascades, Rockies and beyond, hikers are arming themselves with increasingly affordable technology intended to get them out of life-threatening situations.

While daring rescues are one result, very often the beacons go off unintentionally when the button is pushed in someone's backpack, or they are activated unnecessarily, as in the case of a woman who was frightened by a thunderstorm.

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"There's controversy over these devices in the first place because it removes the self-sufficiency that's required in the backcountry," Scharper says. "But we are a society of services, and every service you need you can get by calling."

Personal locator beacons, which send distress signals to government satellites, became available in the early 1980s, but at a price exceeding $1,200. They have been legal for the public to use since 2003, and in the last year the price has fallen to less than $100 for devices that send alerts to a company, which then calls local law enforcement.

When rescue beacons tempt inexperienced hikers to attempt trails beyond their abilities, that can translate into unnecessary expense and a risk of lives.

For example, when eight climbers ran into trouble last winter during a summit attempt of Mount Hood in Oregon, they called for help after becoming stranded in a snowstorm.

"The question is, would they have decided to go on the trip knowing the weather was going bad if they had not been able to take the beacons," asks Rocky Henderson of Portland Mountain Rescue. "We are now entering the 'Twilight Zone' of someone else's intentions."

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