How to make a backcountry 911 call


This tip was written with expert advice from Steve Rollins, a long time member of Portland Mountain Rescue

Write down key information BEFORE you make the call.

You, someone in your group, or someone you come across, has a serious injury in the backcountry.

You're fortunate enough to have cell phone service, or possibly can text with a satellite communication device such as the Garmin InReach.

(Note: Calling 911 is always the first choice. If you are using an InReach or similar device that can only text, be aware that many 911 call centers, as of this writing in 2018, CANNOT receive text messages. If you have an Inreach, it's better to text your in-town emergency contact person, and have them forward the information to 911. But using a phone to directly call 911 is always the first choice. )

Before you grab your phone and dial 911 in a panic, take a few deep breaths, get a pencil and paper, and write down some important information that Search and Rescue (SAR) will probably need. Note that 911 will probably not ask you for all of this information, you will need to volunteer some of it.

Keep a pencil stub and a few small sheets of tyvek paper, free from a cut up repurposed Priority Mail envelope, in your first aid kit for this very purpose.

If you have a few different people on your team, do a phone inventory before you make the call. See who has the strongest cell signal and battery level. Different cell phone carriers can have different signal strength in the mountains. You don’t have to use your own phone if a better battery and a stronger signal comes from someone else.

Be patient. The 911 operator is used to dealing with urban emergencies and may not initially understand that you are calling from the backcountry. They also are probably not familiar with things like UTM coordinates nor things like “I’m at the Hogsback on Mt Hood.” Be patient. Don’t get frustrated. They are there to help you. Explain your situation, have them repeat back everything, and tell them to transmit the information to county SAR; more on that below.

One more tip - If you call 911, you are most likely going to initiate a rescue. Do not call 911 for a “We’re okay, but running late” type of call. That is a non-emergency, and should go to your contact person in town, not 911.

  1. Tell the 911 operator, “I am calling from a wilderness location and I do NOT have a street address.” (This hopefully gives them notification this is not a standard urban 911 call.)

  2. Tell the 911 operator, “I’m going to give you some information that you normally do not need or ask for. I want you to relay ALL of it to county Search and Rescue.” (911 call centers have a protocol for urban emergencies that they usually follow, and this gives them notification that they need to record more than usual.)

  3. What county you are in, if known. SAR is typically coordinated by the county sheriff. If you make a 911 call from a wilderness location, depending on the cell towers you reach, the 911 call might go to a county that’s not the one you’re in. The operator may transfer you to the correct county, let them make this decision.

  4. Identify yourself.

  5. Give your call back number, or perhaps two. If it’s not your phone, write these number(s) down before you call.

  6. Consider monitoring your phone on the hour for 10 minutes to save phone battery; eg 11:00 to 11:10. Keep your phone warm in an inside pocket. (Hopefully you brought an auxiliary phone battery and a charging cable, the 11th essential.)

  7. Exact GPS coordinates, ideally in latitude longitude decimal degree format. Example: 45.1234, -122.1234. Providing coordinates in another format, such as latitude longitude degrees, minutes, seconds or UTM, is acceptable, but many 911 call centers may not be familiar with this format, so use decimal degree format if possible to reduce the chance of error. (It’s easiest to transmit decimal degree coordinates by voice, because they don’t have tricky extra things like zones, eastings, northings, single quotes, double quotes, and degree symbols.)

  8. Side note: You should always know how to get your coordinates from your phone, here's a tip how to do this. Having a phone app designed to do this is a fine idea, like my favorite “UTM Position Mailer” for the iPhone.

  9. You may want to tell the operator, “I'm going to give you coordinates of our current position. You may not be familiar with them, but write them down exactly as I say, repeat them back to me when I'm done, and pass them onto SAR.” Once SAR gets the coordinates, they will know what to do with them, no matter what format they are in.

  10. A verbal terrain or map description as clearly as possible. “We are at the base of the Hogsback on Mt. Hood”. The 911 operator will probably not know what this means, but SAR will. Give this in addition to your GPS coordinates. If the coordinates get messed up somehow, the verbal description is a backup.

  11. Patient name, age and gender.

  12. Patient’s emergency contact person and phone number.

  13. List of injuries, most serious first.

  14. Your plan for treatment. Stay put and wait for help, or maybe start moving to a specific location. Generally, once SAR knows where you are, even if you’re mobile, they want you to stay put.

  15. A request for what form of help you think you need, such as litter, sled or helicopter. Note that the decision for this is not yours to make, it's up to the SAR team. If you have a very serious injury and think you need a helicopter, you can make this known, but it's no guarantee you're going to get one.

  16. Ask the 911 operator to REPEAT this information back to you.

More info . . .

Here's what will probably happen after you make the 911 call. The 911 call center will forward your information to the county sheriff search and rescue (SAR) coordinator. If you’re in a mountain environment, that SAR Coordinator will probably contact the local mountain rescue team; hopefully there’s one in your area.

Either the SAR coordinator and/or the mountain rescue team may call you directly for additional information. After your initial 911 call, keep your phone warm in an inside pocket, available and charged. Don’t tie up your phone or use battery texting/calling anyone else right after you make the initial call. SAR may want to know patient vital signs, weather conditions, altitude, wind direction and speed, and approximate snow conditions. This can dictate what equipment they need to bring and how to reach you most effectively.

Stay off texting / social media. Sometimes easier said than done. There's been more than one case of someone who is trying to carefully conserve their phone battery, but turned their phone on and discovered loads of text messages and social media messages from concern friends, which killed their battery. If you do get a pile of texts, try to not respond to them and save your battery for communication with rescue teams.

Giving your correct coordinates is extremely important. Take some time to get it right. Newer smartphones can access a greater number of satellites, such as the European Union and Russian satellite constellations, in addition to the United States satellites. This generally can give you a faster lock and more accurate position. This can become more important if you are in a deeper canyon or under heavy tree cover. So, if someone in your group has a newer phone, you might want to use theirs. Good news for climbers, being high up on the side of a mountain is going to give you about the best possible satellite reception.

Be aware that a rescue can take a long time. (At least that what it seems like when you’re waiting for one.) This is not the French Alps, when the Chamonix rescue helicopter can be on the scene in 20 minutes. There are many people and resources that need to be mobilized. Sit tight and get comfortable, you're probably going to be there for a long time. Make your patient as comfortable and warm as you can. This may mean putting insulating pads and warm clothing underneath them, putting other clothing along their sides, and possibly wrapping them up mummy style in a tent or tarp, if you have one. If their injuries are stabilized, your main task is keeping them warm and comfortable as best you can.