Mobile phones can work if you are near a township or highway, however phone network coverage is not complete in remote areas of Australia. In an emergency it is generally the fastest and easiest way to summon help. Your best chance of coverage is from a high spot such as a hill or lookout, but you are unlikely to ever get coverage in a canyon or gorge.
In areas of marginal coverage SMS can be more reliable than voice, but 000 does not accept SMS messages. If SMS is the only way you seem to be able to connect, then you will have to SMS a friend and get them to call 000 for you.
If you are using a mobile phone to dial emergency in Australia, the first number to try is 000. The international standard emergency number is 112, if you dial this number in Australia you will be treated exactly the same as a 000 call.
When you get through to an operator you will be asked which service you require. If you have a medical emergency you should ask for Ambulance, if you have a situation were you are lost or require rescue you should ask for Police. The operator may ask for a street and nearest cross street. The operator is trying to find where you are so you can be connected to the local emergency service for your location. In a remote area “street and cross street” is often not appropriate so you may have to explain the situation and suggest a nearby landmark the operator would be able to identify, such as a nearby lookout, mountain top, access road or river. If the operator insists on a street and cross street ask to talk to their supervisor. When you are connected to the service you require you should start being more specific about your location using grid references or local landmarks. Try to minimise mistakes with grid references by also giving a nearby landmark.
Do not hang up until you have confirmed that it is OK to do so by the 000 operator. Keep your phone on if possible as they may try to ring you back, but be aware of the limited battery life of phones so inform the operator if you are running out of battery. If you turn your phone off to save battery life make sure you arrange a time with emergency services to turn it back on again.
Using Mobile Phones in Areas of Marginal Coverage
Be aware that a mobile phone in an area with a weak signal will use much more power trying to maintain the signal. Your phone battery may only last a few hours in a region with marginal coverage – even though it may normally last for days in the city. This is because the phone is regularly transmitting small messages to the phone network so the network keeps track of your phone’s location. The phone controls the signal strength of these messages so it does not use more battery life than is necessary – it transmits with just enough strength for the phone network to receive the message.
However in marginal coverage areas these frequent messages need to be sent with a lot of power to get through. This means you should expect the batteries to be consumed in a fraction of the time they normal last in the city which has good signal strength everywhere.
Satellite phones provide much broader coverage than normal mobile phones as they rely on satellites orbiting the Earth to receive the signal rather than land based antennas. Compared to normal mobile phones they are heavier, bulkier, more expensive and tend to have reduced battery life. They require a location with a clear view of the sky, this means they may not work in deep valleys. But they will work in areas far away from any civilisation.
000 should work on a phone from an Australian supplier. Satellite phones from other countries may have other numbers set up as the emergency number – check before your trip so you know before there is an emergency.
Two Way Radio
In general they are not good to rely on for communications in an emergency, but can be useful for communicating within a group. However, many rural properties have a UHF CB radio permanently on, so this can be a useful backup communication method if other methods have failed.
Another issue to be aware of with CB radios is that near major cities or highways there are a lot of people on these channels so you can expect to pick up other people’s transmissions. Unfortunately it is common for these transmissions to use very explicit language and to be down-right crude. If you are easily offended or have children nearby you might want to keep the radio off until you are in a remote area and the “chooks” are out of range.
If you are in distress near rural properties and have a UHF CB radio, try every channel asking for help and waiting to see if you get a response. In my experience, most rural properties use a channel in the range 10 to 20 so this range of channels is a good place to start. Also you may be able to reach a repeater on duplex mode on one of the channels 1 through to 8. You can test if you are being received by a repeater by briefly tapping the push-to-talk button (PTT – no need to say anything) and wait a few seconds. If a repeater is in range it will reply with its identification code as a Morse code message. Repeaters send their ID every minute while there is activity on that channel. If you hear nothing then wait 60 seconds and repeat. If you still hear nothing then no repeater can hear you on that channel. If you do reach a repeater it will re-broadcast your message with increased power which will extend the range over which somebody might hear your transmission.
Channel 5 in duplex mode is commonly an emergency channel, however this cannot be relied on and there is no guarantee that anybody is monitoring it.
There is a second CB band in Australia (CB means Citizens band, which means access is unrestricted and no license is required). This is known as 27MHz CB. As for UHF CB radios, no license is required to use a radio in this band and radios are easily available and relatively cheap. In comparison to UHF CB, the 27MHz CB radios tend to be a little larger and heavier, have reduced voice quality, but have longer ranges and the signal can bend around obstructions better than UHF CB.
This system is less common than UHF CB and is almost never monitored for emergency transmissions. This makes it a poor choice as an emergency communications system.
HF radios provide long range communications person to person, or person to base. Compared to UHF units they are more expensive, bulkier, heavier and require a license (for example, $144 a year at https://vks737.radio). There is no call cost. HF radios do not necessarily require line of sight for communications as the radio signal has two properties which allow it to bend around terrain:
- The signal has a “ground wave” which follows the ground, including following undulations for a short distance (1-5km depending on conditions) from the transmitter.
- The signal has a “sky wave” which travels high into the atmosphere – the ionosphere in fact – where for a narrow band of frequencies in the HF spectrum the atmosphere bends the signal back to Earth. This means the ionosphere acts as a mirror and reflects the signal back to Earth. This technique is commonly used to bounce HF signals around the world if the signal is sent at an angle. If the signal is sent straight up it reflects back down again in the local area – this technique is called “near vertical incidence sky wave” or NVIS – and this is the technique BSAR NSW uses during search and rescue operations to get radio communications out of canyons and over mountain ranges.
These properties are very useful, but have limitations. The ground wave is short range and therefore generally not useful for emergency communications. The sky wave can cover huge ranges, but relies on using the correct frequency to get a good “bounce”. The effective frequency changes over the course of a day, between seasons and with the level of sunspot activity on the sun. This means it requires some knowledge of the prevailing conditions to select an appropriate frequency for effective communications. Current HF radio conditions for Australia can be found here and worldwide here. Sky wave also requires antennas specifically designed for it. As you can see from the links this topic becomes very technical and understanding it enough to communicate long distances is part of the appeal to HAM radio operators.
Effective use of an HF radio requires considerable knowledge and training, but if you are keen to do the required work to understand the operation of the device it can be a very powerful tool. There are also a number of services on HF which may be useful in remote areas, such as weather forecasts and radiophone systems (these allow you to connect an HF radio into the standard telephone network).
Personal GPS Tracker
A number of systems have been developed which use a GPS to evaluate your current position and transmit that to a satellite. Examples include:
- Inreach, through systems like Garmin InReach and Delorme InReach
Our experience with these systems is they are very good. They provide routine tracking and messaging options in addition to emergency communications functions. New technologies are appearing in this area all the time, so talk to your local outdoors store to see the latest technologies.