Garmin buys GEOS, good or bad for SEND distress services?
SEND is not a commonly used acronym, but it’s especially worth understanding because Garmin just acquired GEOS Worldwide, the company that runs “the only global Search and Rescue Coordination Center for Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (S.E.N.D.).” If you own a Garmin inReach this is almost undoubtedly good news, but what about boaters who use other SEND distress, tracking, and messaging systems like Globalstar Spot, Iridium GO, Inmarsat IsatPhone, Zoleo, Skymate Mazu, and others?
Cutting quickly to the chase, I strongly doubt that Garmin will mess with any of the many competitors who have contracted the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC) to manage their customers’ distress messages. While the acquisition press release is not specific on this subject, a Garmin spokesperson quickly followed up on my question thusly:
Garmin does not intend to make any changes to the access of SEND products or service levels provided by the IERCC to other companies.
In fact, there are numerous reasons why Garmin will not make any such changes. Their inReach satellite communications line is already competing quite well, using a critical safety feature as a business tool would be a poor corporate look anyway, and Iridium — which provides the satellite service for most SENDs, including inReach — might have something to say about it.
Moreover, Garmin’s corporate DNA has long meant either creating or acquiring every aspect of their products, as witnessed during my 2010 visit to their Olathe HQ. And their major marine acquisitions like Fusion Audio and Navionics have seemingly maintained integration relationships with many of their major competitors. So let’s take Garmin at its word when it wrote this to inReach users last week:
Garmin is committed to ensuring the IERCC continues its superior service as an industry-leading provider of emergency monitoring and response services. Together, we are dedicated to continuing to ensure that adventurers and travelers all over the world have access to 24/7 emergency assistance when they need it.
But it’s also a good time to review the short but successful history of GEOS and SEND systems.
It all started in 2007 with the original SPOT messenger. I was impressed with early testing, as long as users understood its need for an excellent sky view and its lack of truly global coverage. But I also bridled at SPOT’s early fear marketing, even challenged the New York Times’ rosy gadget coverage, and certainly understood the discomfort with a commercial satellite system (Globalstar) delivering distress calls to a commercial rescue center (then called the GEOS Alliance). Especially when the government-supported international Cospas-Sarsat system already supported effective and tightly standardized Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), and even marine-specific Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs).
Early SPOT messengers also developed a reputation for accidental (or unnecessary) distress alerts, and in 2012 GEOS was blamed — unfairly, I thought — for a slow response to a terrible sailboat accident. But by then an Iridium-instigated group of manufacturers was working with the RTCM to create the SEND standard with minimum performance mandates like a distress message control difficult to enable accidentally. In fact, Panbo readers and I got to have a say about SEND development in 2010 and the original DeLorme inReach surfaced soon after.
So while first-generation hiccups may account for my initial uneasiness with the idea of one SEND manufacturer owning the single IERCC for virtually all SENDs, actually the SEND world has become pleasantly settled since those early days. There’s little talk of accidental alerts or bungled responses while GEOS usage stats and rescue stories impress.
Meanwhile, PLB and EPIRB rescues have apparently not slowed down, so the 2011 challenge written by SEND activist Doug Ritter — Is COSPAS-SARSAT On Endangered List? — has not materialized. But Doug’s prediction about how SENDs with features like inexpensive two-way messaging and tracking in addition to beyond-cellular SOS certainly came true. And while the standard he helped create is partially why the search and rescue organizations have adapted to SENDs, certainly GEOS also deserves a lot of credit.
When I wrote about GEOS in 2008, I somewhat romanticized its alleged roots in can-do British Special Forces and also discovered that it had established its IERCC in a super-secure and somewhat mysterious old fallout shelter in Texas. Well, the Westland Bunker is better known now (and greatly fixed up), but while GEOS is still there, the two-story underground portion of the complex was barely mentioned during a recent Houston Public Radio profile.
It’s good to know that the rescue center I might one day contact is well protected, and also that they handle emergencies in the far off places discussed in the radio profile. In my case, likely on a boat along the east coast of North America, the GEOS IERCC would likely pass my distress information to a USCG RCC or maybe a Canadian MRSC — I’m still hoping to get up there — just as a Cospas-Sarsat Mission Control Center would. But GEOS is capable of much more, perhaps more than anyone in certain cases.
That’s because GEOS can even coordinate a private search and rescue contractor if you’re in trouble outside the scope of official SAR services, as explained here by Globalstar. In fact, while most SEND providers now include GEOS SOS service in their messaging and tracking service plans, in most cases you can add GEOS SAR insurance that should cover much or all of a private rescue cost. Good to know!
Finally, in my conversation with Garmin, the spokesperson also elaborated on why they acquired GEOS:
GEOS has been a long-time partner of Garmin and we recognized the essential role they play in supporting our SOS functionality. During this time, we have recognized ways we could improve our service to customers if closer collaboration and integration was possible; this acquisition enables this next level of integration.
As intriguing as that sounds, I’m unable to guess what more Garmin has in mind. Newer SEND models like the inReach Mini I’ve come to appreciate for its simplicity, or the do-it-all GPSMap 86sci that Ben Stein has been testing, can already integrate nicely with many Garmin multifunction displays. I was only demonstrating the feature in the June 2019 photo above, but I could have been communicating with the GEOS bunker or directly with the Coast Guard.
At any rate, I look forward to seeing what the “next level of integration” looks like and I’m optimistic that GEOS will remain an able partner to all SEND developers.