ALPENA, Mich. (AP) – “Don’t think your cell phone is going to get you out of trouble,” said Sgt. Mike Mshar, law enforcement division supervisor for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “Because it’s not.”
Every year, DNR conservation officers and other emergency crews have to rescue people who have gotten lost or in trouble but can’t tell anyone because they don’t have adequate cell phone coverage, can’t direct first responders to them because they don’t know where they are, or are hard to reach because they’re deep in the woods or on a frozen lake.
Up North rescue crews are equipped with the gear and training needed to help people in distress, even when woods, snowdrifts, or sinkholes get in the way, officials said.
First, though, responders have to find the person who needs help – and that, in a rural area with incomplete cell phone coverage, can be a tricky task.
“For being 2021, and as tech-advanced as we are, coverage is terrible in rural areas,” Mshar told The Alpena News.
Dead zones for cell coverage pimple northern Michigan, said Mshar, rattling off a list of pockets where even his conservation officers can’t make phone calls while on patrol.
“Northwest of Atlanta,” Mshar said. “South of Atlanta, all the way down to the county line. West almost to Lewiston. There’s no cell phone service. Zero.”
Those dead zones are the same areas where people come to hunt, snowmobile, ride off-road vehicles, and ice fish, he said.
Every year, conservation officers get calls from people who need help but had to walk through woods or another unfamiliar setting until they could pick up a cell signal, often getting more lost in the process.
Inexperienced boaters have similar problems. Some will head onto the water without a marine radio, assuming their cell phone will be adequate. They learn the hard way that their trusted electronic device can’t help them when they sail out of range of cell towers, Mshar said.
When a call can’t go through – or when a caller doesn’t know where they are – cell providers sometimes assist officers in finding someone by “pinging” a cell phone, using towers to figure out a phone’s last location. The ping can provide GPS coordinates, which officers use to drive as close to the person as possible before covering the last stretch on foot.
“In a way, technology is failing us, but at the same time, technology is saving us,” Mshar said.
In Northeast Michigan, navigation systems on phones or in vehicles can easily incorrectly identify a user’s location and lead drivers astray – and nobody knows how to use a paper map anymore, Mshar grumbled.
Whether mushroom enthusiasts and turkey hunters in spring or deer hunters or boaters in fall, the DNR gets a few calls every month from people lost in northern Michigan.
Often, people go for a hike or day hunt packing nothing they can use to let someone know they need to be found.
“They didn’t expect to be lost,” Mshar said.
Garrett Mead was on hand when a hiker at Rockport State Recreation Area got turned around at night a few years ago.
As a paid-on-call volunteer with the Alpena Township Fire Department, Mead understands the challenges of getting to people quickly in a rural area.
As a registered nurse in the emergency room at MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena, he sees the results when that doesn’t happen.
Injuries or other medical emergencies can become much worse if someone has to wait because their rescuers can’t find them, Mead said.
The Rockport hiker was found uninjured after a several-hour search-and-rescue effort. The rescue was a success, Mead said, but, had searchers been able to identify the hiker’s precise location through an accurate cell phone signal, they could have gotten there quicker.
An outdoorsman with training in wilderness medicine, Mead said that, once someone in a bad cell area finds service, they should stay put. That could mean the difference between a quick find or a longer wait before help arrives.
In Northeast Michigan, responders have to train and equip themselves for the unique needs of rural emergencies, Mead said.
At the Long Rapids Fire Department, an emergency trailer is packed with ice rescue equipment, a side-by-side for rescuing injured hunters and snowmobilers on county trails, and high-angle rescue equipment in case a responder has to rappel down the side of a sinkhole to rescue someone who’s fallen in.
That happened about 12 years ago, said recently retired Long Rapids Fire Chief Neil MacArthur.
Equipment that would be out of place in a metropolitan area is vital in a region where emergencies can – and do – happen anywhere.
First responders sometimes have to find people in remote corners of an extensive property, hunt for people who have fallen out of their tree blinds in the woods, or respond to fires in rural reaches where roads and driveways are unmarked and GPS and cell service are unreliable.
That’s where experience and knowledge of the area come in, Mead said.
“Sometimes, it is a little bit of a dance, trying to find places,” he said. “It may delay things a little bit, but that’s one of those things with being in rural areas. Citizens understand things can get a little delayed. The good part is that we always get there.”
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