The SPOT unit, with its '911' buttonA stricken walker summoned aid via an international rescue system that was used for the first time in Europe this week.

The SPOT unit, with its '911' button

Help came in the shape not of Thunderbird Four, but a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter dispatched thanks to a £150 hand-held machine and an emergency system spanning the globe. Operators say the walker may even owe his life to the pocket device.

Niels Vinter, a 60-year-old Danish-born man now living in Sunderland, was taking part in the TGO Challenge, a long-distance event in which participants make their way from the west coast of Scotland to the eastern shores, by a route of their choice.

When the walker, managing director of a pump-manufacturing company, started experiencing severe abdominal pains, he pulled out his SPOT transceiver and hit the ‘911’ button. In remote Glen Etive, three days into a journey which had begun at Oban, he might have expected a long wait until he was missed. But within two hours, the Royal Navy was on its way to grid reference NN 1728 5117, and soon he was on his way to Belford Hospital, Fort William. His condition is described as ‘comfortable’.

Buachaille Etive Mòr, at the head of Glen Etive The SPOT system is an innovation which could transform the way mountain rescue operates in the UK – for better or worse. grough has covered the debate on whether emergency personal locator beacons (PLBs) should be licensed for use on land.

Buachaille Etive Mòr, at the head of Glen Etive 

They are already used extensively on marine vessels and aircraft and rely on registration of each unit. It is unlawful, at present, for walkers and mountaineers to use them to summon help from rescue teams.

The SPOT uses its own system, bypassing the official Cospas-Sarsat system of orbiting satellites, utilising instead a set of low-orbit satellites operated by SPOT’s parent company Globalstar. The GPS receiver in the SPOT unit relays coordinates accurate to less than 100m to a monitoring centre in Houston, Texas, which then looks up the nearest rescue authorities and alerts them that the user is in an emergency situation.

In Mr Vinter’s case, this was the Fort William police, 15 miles north of his position, who then set in motion the normal rescue operation, via the RAF Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre at Kinloss, Moray, which scrambled the crew from HMS Gannet in Prestwick in Ayrshire.

Rescue coordinator, Flight Sergeant Tim Dickinson, said, “This was a perfect example of excellent cooperation between the police at Fort William and the military search-and-rescue services. We have rescued a Danish tourist in the Scottish mountains following an emergency call from the USA, using a Royal Navy helicopter and coordinated by the Royal Air Force.”

The SPOT device costs £149.95 plus an annual subscription to the satellite and monitoring service. In addition to the emergency signals, the unit can be used for more mundane tracking and communicating, using Google Earth mapping.

The main bone of contention is the fact that no details of the emergency are transmitted, merely the fact that the user is in need of help. Fears of misuse are understandable in mountain rescue circles, with an increasing number of calls for help coming at present via mobile phones from people who are lost and not necessarily in need of urgent assistance. This has put a huge strain on the mountain rescue teams of the UK which, with the exception of a small number run by the armed services, are all unpaid volunteers.

SPOT’s terms say the company reserves the right to levy a penalty of $100 for deliberate or negligent use of emergency services, but the cost to the teams of each call-out usually run to thousands of pounds, particularly when search-and-rescue helicopters are used.

The SPOT unit However, in the case of the Danish challenger, it is clear the device was a boon. Flight Lieutenant Curly Crawford, of RAF Kinloss, said: “If he had not had this device the first anyone would know to raise the alarm would be if he was overdue at his next check-in time. The local police would be called and search teams would be called in. Chances are, because of the terrain, they would have called us for helicopter assistance.

The SPOT unit

“We would have had a start position and where the man was walking to, but the search area would have been huge. The device has cut down the amount of time it took us. We launched the helicopter to the position and there he was. There was no searching.

“It has saved an awful lot of time and got this gentleman, who was in a great deal of pain, medical assistance quickly.”

The SPOT system covers nearly all north and south America, Europe, northern and central Asia and Oceania, as well as north Africa.

The Adventure Trading Post, which sold Mr Vinter his SPOT, is tracking five walkers on the TGO challenge though, of course, the Danish businessman’s trace is unlikely to advance.