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Casper Fire EMS: better alternatives for sending ‘SOS’ than social media suggests

left: (Screenshot of Casper Fire-EMS live briefing, Facebook) Right: stranded vehicle (Shutterstock)

CASPER, Wyo. — There are better alternatives to advice in a recent viral PSA advising people to change their voicemail message if they are lost or stranded, said Casper Fire-EMS engineer and public information officer Dane Andersen in a live briefing Sunday morning.

“We would, right now, advise against that,” Andersen said.

The unsourced, widely circulated, and not-approved-by-Casper Fire EMS message is as follows:

“PSA – If you are ever lost while hiking, get stranded with a broken down car, etc. and you notice your cell phone is either low on juice or has no signal, here is a tip that very well may save your life.

Change the voicemail on your phone to a message that gives your approximate location, the time, the date, your situation (lost, out of gas, car broken down, injured, etc.) and any special instructions such as you are staying with the car, you are walking toward a town, etc. … The best part of this is that even if your cell phone dies or stops working, voicemail still works, so anyone calling your phone looking for you will hear the message and know where to find you or where to send help.”

-Unknown

Changing a voice mail message requires significantly more data than sending a text, Andersen said, and there is no guarantee it will take effect or be heard. 

Calling 911 is still the preferred option, but if that is not available, those in trouble can text 911, which uses significantly less data and can transmit a message with only a minimum of service.

The ability to text 911 has been available in Natrona County since April of 2020. That technology is also the basis of the Backcountry SOS smartphone app, which also provides GPS location information to emergency personnel. The service is also available in (but not necessarily limited to) Teton, Campbell, Carbon, Laramie, and Albany counties.

Andersen recommended keeping a draft text of the ‘SOS’ message, including as much location description as possible, until there is enough service to send. While not trying to send a message, Andersen also recommended conserving battery life on cell phones by using ‘airplane mode,’ which prevents data from coming in and out.

Andersen also recommended that those lost or stranded stay with their vehicles and conserve energy, both physical and technological.

He said he will be investigating the source of the dubious PSA.

The free Backcountry SOS app is available for download:

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