What Happens When a User Triggers an SOS on an inReach?
Imagine a scenario where you or a family member is critically injured in a remote location. At this moment, you realize that you haven't updated your inReach user profile with appropriate emergency contacts. When an SOS situation occurs, decisions need to be made quickly and correctly. It's best to understand what happens when a user triggers an SOS on an inReach and prepare before a crisis happens and the stakes are high.

This article shares tips on how to update your inReach user profile. In addition, Kevin Stamps, Director of Global Operations at the International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC) at GEOS, explains how staff at the IERCC will respond when an individual triggers an SOS on an inReach and provides additional guidance on best practices for use of an inReach during an emergency.

Triggering an SOS and Communicating with the IERCC

When a user triggers an SOS on an inReach—at any time and at any location on the globe—the device automatically sends a message to the IERCC at GEOS with an indication that the inReach user has an emergency.

The staff at the IERCC will respond: "This is the IERCC, we have received your SOS activation. What is the nature of your emergency?"

Immediately, the IERCC has the exact location coordinates sent from the inReach device, and GEOS software will provide information to IERCC staff about emergency service providers who can respond at that location. Stamps notes that GEOS has established relationships with first response agencies and rescue coordination centers around the world and that they are constantly updating their database.

Seconds after the response to the SOS message is sent, multiple people at the IERCC begin to follow a set of procedures. GEOS operates in the same model as the COSPAS-SARSAT system and follows procedures established by the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue (IAMSAR) manual. GEOS also works with the National Search and Rescue Committee (NSARC) and the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services (RTCM) in the United States, as well as other committees and agencies around the world to establish best-in-class protocols for responding to emergencies.

According to these established national and international search and rescue protocols, IERCC staff are required to try to communicate with the registered user of the inReach device via the contact information provided on inReach.Garmin.com. This step is required to attempt to rule out a false alarm and possibly devoting emergency resources unnecessarily. However, at the same time the IERCC has initiated contact with the appropriate responsible agency based on incident information. Even though the IERCC may soon discover that the SOS message was unintentional, Stamps explains, "It's easier to stop a search and rescue operation than to start one."

While this outreach effort is happening behind the scenes, a staff member at the IERCC is communicating with the individual inReach user in the field. It's important for the inReach user to respond quickly to the message from the IERCC, says Stamps. "The first message a user sends should be the reason for the SOS activation. Be clear and brief."

Minutes are critical when relaying information to first responders. GEOS needs to understand the situation in the field to provide the best and most accurate information to a search and rescue organization. They may also need to contact additional agencies depending on the type of emergency. For example, in the United States, in the event of a plane crash the IERCC must notify the Air Force Communications Command or the U.S. Coast Guard for emergencies offshore.

During an SOS situation, an inReach user may be inclined to communicate with contacts at home or work, but your first focus should be a reply to GEOS that details your emergency. After that critical information is established, that is a better time to notify other contacts of your situation.

Stamps adds that the IERCC staff is trying to determine three "Ps" and a "D." This breaks down as follows:

  1. Position. The IERCC receives this information from the device, but additional details are helpful. For example, are you airborne, on the ground, or on water? Furthermore, are you on the north or south shore of a river or the east or west side of a road?
  2. Problem. Briefly state the situation. Is it an accident you witnessed, your own injury, or an ill member of your party?
  3. People. It is critical to convey the number of and general information about the individuals involved. As you may imagine, the resources needed to rescue seven adults with serious injuries is quite different than one individual with a sprained ankle.
  4. Description. This last detail may already be clear, but GEOS will reply with questions if essential details have not yet been determined that would aid in a rescue. Examples might be: What is your itinerary? Are you in a stable or disabled craft? What is the color of your clothing or backpack? What is the name and make of your sailboat, aircraft, or vehicle? These details not only convey the severity of an emergency, they also help responders locate the user or group from a helicopter's view or in storm-swept areas.
One piece of advice is to not hesitate to send short bursts of brief text. Rather than detail all the Ps and D listed above in one text message, a series of concise texts would be helpful.

"Need help." [Send]
"Broken leg. Bleeding." [Send]
"1 injured. Sally Smith. 28. Can't move." [Send]
"3 in party. Hiking." [Send.]
"Blue tarp on S shore Duck Lake." [Send.]

Communicating with the inReach User and Emergency Contacts

As noted above, when an SOS is initiated, the IERCC's protocol is to first try to contact the inReach user and to contact the appropriate search and rescue entity. If it has been determined that an emergency is happening—or if the user cannot be contacted—the IERCC will establish a point of contact with the user's emergency contacts.

Information in your inReach online profile, such as emergency contacts and emergency notes, is immediately available to the team at the IERCC via their system during an SOS. You can update this information via inReach.Garmin.com website and then selecting the Account tab. An example of general information to add to your emergency notes section may include information about your trip itinerary, allergies, medical conditions, or insurance providers. (Note: if you have purchased a GEOS member benefit, the IERCC will have this information in their system.)


The IERCC will also confirm to the inReach user and emergency contact that an emergency message has been received and that search and rescue services are responding. For example, a hiker in Great Smokey Mountain National Park might receive, "We have contacted Park Dispatch. They are working on getting someone out to your location."

During an SOS, if the IERCC receives a response from the user, IERCC staff will stay involved with the inReach user and will communicate all known information that they have received from the search and rescue organization. In addition, the IERCC will establish one emergency point-of-contact for communicating updates.

Stamps explains that it is GEOS policy for the IERCC to communicate directly with the search and rescue organization and relay messages to the inReach user and established point-of-contact, rather than looping in these contacts and various family members with the search and rescue organization directly. "This eliminates gaps in communication and maintains a clear process for delivering critical information."

The IERCC can also communicate with search and rescue about location and other details (e.g. landmarks or identifying features or assets provided by the inReach user and emergency contacts) that are essential to help responders get to the inReach user or group's location. These details might be gained from communication with the inReach user, emergency contact, or even from the inReach user's profile. It is also important to share with your emergency contact details about your trip and, possibly, essential information such as travel or personal insurance to help make important decisions.

It's best for family members or emergency contacts to limit chatter and messages sent to the inReach during an emergency. This will ensure that critical messages from the IERCC can be addressed by the inReach user in the field and that the device battery isn't expended on excessive messaging.

If an inReach device battery is running low, the IERCC will propose to the user a communication schedule. (Note that staff at the IERCC can see the battery level of the inReach device on their system.) During a long rescue situation, the IERCC may recommend that the user turn the device off and on at certain intervals to communicate. For example, if the user is injured at night and a rescue attempt can't be made until morning, or until bad weather breaks, or if a slower moving naval vessel or ground-based team requires a lengthy transit for a rescue, the IERCC might suggest turning the device back on in two hours for an update to preserve the user's battery.

Stamps encourages users to test their inReach device before use in the field. Users can do so by logging in to the inReach.Garmin.com website (Account>Test) and selecting to have the system send a test message to their inReach device. Important: Any SOS activation via the inReach device is considered real, so you should only trigger SOS on the inReach device in a real emergency.


Rest Assured that GEOS Can Provide Capable and Efficient Global Support

For many years, the team at the IERCC has responded to a diverse range of incidents around the world. The IERCC can respond in 210 languages and dialects. According to Stamps, "We haven't run into a user in a country that we haven't been able to communicate with."

The difference that an inReach provides during an emergency is not only its unique two-way messaging and GPS features but also the capabilities and 24/7 global SOS support offered by GEOS. Adding an inReach to your gear will give you the peace of mind that help is available when you head out for your next adventure.

Kevin Stamps is Director of Global Operations at the International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC) at GEOS. Prior to joining GEOS, Stamps served in the U.S. Coast Guard where he was involved in numerous law enforcement and search and rescue operations. GEOS has provided global safety and response solutions since 2007.

Have an inReach story you'd like to share? We'd love to hear from you. Contact us at inreach.stories@garmin.com.

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