Satellite Phones and 911

Some information came through the SAR grapevine the other day about Satellite Phones and how to call for help.

One of the SAR teams had been advising people to take a Satellite phone with them when heading into the backcountry, and to call 911 if they needed emergency assistance. It was discovered that you can’t actually call 911 from an Iridium satellite phone in Canada.

When you make a Sat phone call, the phone is communicating through a satellite in a low earth orbit (LOE), and the satellite is sending the signal through other satellites to a ground station. The ground station could be anywhere on earth. In the case of Iridium, the ground stations are in Arizona, Hawaii, and Italy. Globalstar, having less satellites uses more ground stations.

911 is clearly a local service since your call is usually routed to emergency services based on where you made the call from. Although the satellite system can figure out where you’re calling from, it’s inaccurate and can be off by many kilometres. It appears Iridium has figured out the 911 “catchment” areas and can route the call in the continental USA, US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, but not anywhere else (from their FAQ).

There are several reports on the internet of people using SAT phones in emergencies and realizing that they don’t know what number to call in order to get the help they need. In one tale, the person was on a sinking boat, and had to call their parents to figure out how to alert the proper rescue systems.

There sees to be quite a bit of confusing information on the internet about the status of 911 for other satellite systems. This is probably because both GlobalStar and Iridium have gone bankrupt and been take over by new owners; in addition they’ve probably changed their service offerings several times in the process.

The best bet is to know what numbers to call before you leave civilization. Figure out the direct line for the local emergency services – in many cases the local non-emergency number will have to do since many locations don’t have a local emergency number.

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