Cell phones helpful, but their use is limited

Nothing is better than a stroll through one of our national parks on a cool summer day, but park visitors need to always be well prepared for any unexpected occurrences.

Park visitors are usually well aware of the fact that cell phones are not very reliable in general. So it is of no surprise that, in majority of our national parks, cell phones will fail, especially since there is a major lack of cell towers located within those vast and open spaces.

Unfortunately cell phone towers do have a negative impact on the picturesque scenery of national parks. However, sometimes having these towers is a necessity to insure the safety of the visitors.

Click on the video at right to view an audio slide show about cell phone service in the national parks prepared and narrated by writer Michelle Salom.

“Cell towers can be a visual intrusion in national parks,” stated Scott Gediman who is head of media relations at Yosemite National Park in California.

Park officials have realized that the sight of a cell tower in a beautifully landscaped park is unwanted. However, designers have come up with ways to camouflage the towers in order to accommodate the people who want to enjoy the scenery but also have the luxury of having their cell phone work adequately.

“Many national parks are trying to camouflage the towers so they don’t take away from the scenery. Here in Yosemite we [park officials] try to find other places for the towers, such as buildings, in order to keep them out of public views because it is important for the visual landscape to be seen,” stated Gediman.

Visitors are at times hesitant to go through trails and hikes at a national park out of fear of getting lost and not being rescued.

“I am very hesitant of going hiking at national parks because I am afraid that if I get lost, I will not get rescued,” stated Barbara Kravljanac a Miami native, who recently visited the Everglades National Park in South Florida. “If I was fully aware that my cell phone would be completely reliable, I’d be more adventurous to go on hikes throughout the park, because I know if something were to happen, I would get back safely.”

At right, a cell telephone tower rises above the Tennis Center at Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.  Below, another cell tower, Grant Tower, rises in Yellowstone National Park (Photos courtesy of the National Park Service).

Most large national parks are open spaces and in remote locations. This means, simply, that there are few people and few cell towers for phone service.

National parks do try to help visitors be well prepared in case they do get lost during their visit. Park officials are well aware of the dilemmas with cell phones failing on site when a visitor goes to a location where service is weak or non-existent and, therefore, they provide advice for what to do incase that were to happen.

Yosemite’s search and rescue team provides a list of safety tips to visitors that come to the park. The list is available both online and at the park Visitor center.

The list includes important tips and prior arrangements that one would need to make upon visiting the park. The list was purposely constructed so that incase technology failed, people would still be able to get back to camp safely.

However, in this day and age people have become so reliant on technology that they don’t think to prepare in case there is no cell service or a phone does fail. People have become so dependent on technology that they tend to oversee the fact that it [cell phones] do and will fail at times.

National park officials are realizing that having cell towers is a necessity because of how dependent the human race has become on technology. As of this spring, about 30 national parks have cell towers providing at least partial coverage in the most-visited areas in order to accommodate their visitors.

Hawaii Volcano National Park is one park that needs to have cell towers with in the park in order to ensure safety. “They [cell towers] are primarily for health and safety especially since we have an active volcano here at Hawaii Volcano National Park,” stated Cindy Orlando superintendent at Hawaii Volcano National Park.

The main reason for allowing the towers to be built is for the visitor’s safety. Even though, the service might fail, newer phones with GPS [Global Positioning System] built in; do allow only 911 calls to be placed. This is a luxury in case someone was to get lost and not have prepared properly for their adventure.

Scott Kennett is a perfect example of how a cell phone saved his life while out-and-about in a national park. While skiing in a park, he fell and broke his leg. He said that if it were not for having his cell phone work, then he probably would have never survived.

Having cell phones work in the parks serve as an important emergency function.

“Cell service can also provide communications during an emergency,” stated Lee Dickinson, the Special Park Uses Program Manager for the National Park Service.

Another, but more expensive, alternative is a satellite telephone. Still other park visitors often bring global positioning systems (GPS) with them to parks. Most people are not going to buy a satellite phone or GPS system for one time use, however.

Satellite phones are a type of mobile phone that connects to orbiting satellite instead of terrestrial cell sites. These phones are built for one particular network and cannot be switched to other networks, the price of handsets varies with the performance of the network, and however they are very costly.

Everyone has a cell phone these days and they are usually attached to the owner’s hand. Therefore, having them work efficiently in a very secluded area does make visitors feel safer about being in a certain location.

“I do not go anywhere without my cell phone on me,” stated Liziane Messler a Miami native, who recently visited Yellowstone National Park. “I noticed while I was hiking with my family I had some service and that kind of put me at ease knowing that I was still connected with the world in case we got off track, especially since the area was so secluded.”

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 has allowed cell towers to be built on federal lands. This provides visitors at the parks with some piece of mind that when cell towers do go up; they can go on various different trails and feel safe.

Moreover, having these towers does provide an enhancement in park operations. The towers make it easier for park officials to stay connected.

“Cell service can provide additional communication capabilities for our park staff,” states Dickinson.

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