Monday, March 14, 2005

Some worry cell
phones give hikers
false safety net

While they can be lifesavers,
phones don’t give hikers a license
to irresponsibly push the limits

When many had given Albert Lowe up for dead, he answered his cell phone.

Two years ago the 58-year-old hiker fell more than 200 feet down a steep slope in Waianae. He was unconscious on the ridge overnight, with several broken bones, until coming to the next morning to hear the familiar ring of his cell phone.

Tips For Hikers

» Always tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return.

» Hike with a partner.

» Get information about the route.

» Make sure your fitness and experience fit the difficulty of the trail.

» Wear proper clothing, including hiking boots and rain gear.

» Carry at least two quarts of water per person for a full-day hike.

» Bring a day-pack or waist-pack with some food, a whistle, sunscreen, bug repellent, a small flashlight, basic first-aid kit and a bright article to wave if stranded.

» Stay on the trail.

» Don't take risks, like climbing waterfalls or navigating narrow ridge lines.

» Watch the weather and remember the risk of flash floods in narrow valleys.

» Watch the time and don't get caught out after dark.

» Carry a cell phone but remember that it might be out of range in some mountain areas.


The call saved his life. He answered, and rescuers were able to quickly determine his location -- a spot thick with brush, and not visible from the trail.

Lowe's survival story stresses the importance of carrying a cell phone when hiking. But the same recommended equipment that is often the fastest way to get help in an emergency has also created a predicament for rescuers, say some expert trail leaders, who warn that many Oahu hikers are relying too much on their cell phones.

The experienced hikers say cell phones are lowering people's guards, convincing them (if only subconsciously) that it's OK to start a hike shortly before dusk, wander off a trail or not pack necessities -- like water, a flashlight or first-aid kit -- because help is only a 911 phone call away.

They also say there is an issue of overuse -- novice hikers calling for help simply because they are too tired to get back down from a trail.

There were more than a dozen on that list last year, experienced trail users say, but fire officials could not provide statistics because such information is not included in incident reports.

Fire Capt. Emmit Kane, a spokesman for the Honolulu Fire Department, declined to comment on whether cell phones are creating a problem for rescuers because of overdependence or overuse, saying no one should hesitate before calling 911.

But he did say that hikers should consider cell phones one of a number of things that need to be taken on a trail. "It's a tool," Kane said. "It's not something we think people should be dependent on. We do know that they don't always work."

IN 2004 the Fire Department responded to 110 calls of hikers in distress on Oahu -- just slightly up from 2002 and 2003, when rescuers responded to 102 and 106 hiking distress calls, respectively.

Kane could not provide data on how many of the hikers who were rescued called for help from their cell phones.

But Mabel Kekina, who heads the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club and often helps the Fire Department in missing-hiker cases because of her knowledge of Oahu's trails, said she has seen a firsthand increase in hikers calling 911 from their cell phones "for the silliest things."

She told several stories of hiker rescues that could have been avoided, including one that involved a member of her club who went hiking with two tourists on a difficult trail, kept going up well after lunch time and needed help getting down by the time she had gotten to the top, which was near nightfall.

Kekina said amateur hikers are using their cell phones as a safety net -- an excuse to become more adventurous, straying from marked paths or trying trails more difficult than their level of experience.

"They just don't use common sense," said Kekina, who hikes nearly every weekend.

"It's hard to educate the public, but that's not to say we shouldn't do it. If we reach even 50 percent of the public, that's 50 percent we don't have to go out and look for."

John Hall, a coordinator for Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club who has been hiking on Oahu since 1962, said he also believes hikers are relying too much on their cell phones and not using common sense.

"I'm often amazed," Hall said, at "finding people just starting in on a trail when we're coming out."

THE CALL for more hiking safety awareness in a world of cell phones comes as a bill is moving through the Legislature that would allow the state to charge unprepared or risk-seeking individuals -- including hikers -- for their rescue.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Shan Tsutsui and now before the House, specifies what situations are subject to reimbursement, essentially putting enforcement authority into an existing law that allows the government to charge for search and rescue operations.

Tsutsui (D, Wailuku-Kahului) said the measure is similar to those on the books in other states and is intended for residents or visitors who "disobey warning signs," putting themselves in danger.

"As hiking becomes more and more popular, some end up off the beaten path," Tsutsui said. "I think it's important to exercise some level of common sense, not take extreme risks."

The bill has drawn good reviews from many hikers, Tsutsui said. But the Fire Department has expressed opposition, saying it could cost lives if people end up not calling 911 because they are worried about paying for the costs of a rescue.

Kekina said she is also not sure whether the measure is the right answer.

"The fire rescue people and the police, they're on the payroll, that's their job," she said, with a laugh. "There's no cure for stupid people."

AARON LOWE, trails and access specialist for the Department of Land and Natural Resources' Forestry and Wildlife Division, said the amount of money it costs for search and rescue operations is a factor for authorities, especially with a tightening budget.

But he also said that there is no way of determining "the extent of a situation" until rescuers are on site.

"We put on the list there to bring a cell phone," said Lowe, referring to things to take when hiking. "It's pretty much a good tool to have. I hope people don't use this tool frivolously."

In 2001 the state took a survey at 14 popular trails on the four major islands to determine how prepared the "average hiker" is, and found that most did not have all the recommended equipment.

About half brought water along and just 27 percent brought food. On Oahu trails about 10 percent of hikers surveyed had cell phones.

In a recent interview, Kekina started off by telling the story of the lucky hiker, Lowe, who had been saved because he brought a cell phone. She said she had made that morning phone call to him after others had tried to get through to him but had failed.

"I'm an experienced hiker," she said, later in the conversation. "I carry a cell phone."

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