Crime & Courts

'Malfunctioning' cellphone sends texts for help; AST launches helicopter

Alaska State Troopers say a potential search and rescue was canceled Wednesday when texts for help turned out to be sent by a malfunctioning cellphone.

A mother in Soldotna called emergency dispatchers at 8 a.m. Wednesday and reported she'd received texts from her daughter's phone that read "SOS" and "I need help." The texts included GPS coordinates, troopers said in an online post published Friday.

The daughter was on Kalgin Island in Cook Inlet, assisting at a setnet site. After receiving the texts, the concerned parent was unable to contact her daughter to figure out what was wrong, troopers said.

Troopers' Anchorage-based Helo 3 launched and headed toward Kalgin. While the rescue helicopter was en route, the woman was able to get in touch with her daughter, who "claimed she never sent the texts and that her phone was malfunctioning," troopers said.

Malfunctions have happened before with other GPS devices but not a smartphone, said trooper Lt. Steven Adams, statewide search-and-rescue coordinator.

"I'm not sure what happened in this case or how one could preprogram a text message in a smartphone like can be done with a SPOT device," Adams said.

But troopers have had similar reports in the past where people were in dire need of rescuing, he said.

"In some cases we don't know if someone actually needs help or not, but they must be investigated and if it saves just one life, it is well worth it," Adams said.

The lieutenant added that such responses are judgment calls and don't usually require the assistance of other agencies through the state's Rescue Coordination Center. However, he noted declining funding will make it impossible to respond to similar incidents.

The online post noted search-and-rescue funds "were expended."

Helo 3's operating costs are about $1,700 per hour, which is cheaper than sending out military aircraft, Adams said. The cost is not passed along to people who need help. Rather, the price is part of the Alaska Department of Public Safety's operating budget.

Jerzy Shedlock

Jerzy Shedlock is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.