In response to the Webware Challenge to make cell phones into better lifelines, many (hundreds) of people added comments and wrote to me personally to say the main solution to finding people who are lost or stranded should be better cellular phone coverage, cell phones with emergency satellite radios, or dedicated emergency locator beacons. I support all of these ideas, but as I said in a previous post, I still think we could use a "fail-safe" notification system that alerts friends, families, or authorities when a person goes missing. If a person is unable to make a call for any reason (injury or crime), becoming aware of their situation is the necessary Step One. Finding them is Step Two.
As it turns out, there is at least one company that offers this service: Safety Trip Plan. With this online product, you register your "flight plan" and the time by which you should arrive at your destination. When you arrive, you need to cancel the fail-safe alert (online or by phone, presumably). If you don't, Safety Trip Plan will attempt to contact you, and if it can't, it will quickly mount a search for you in the area you were last known to be. The service costs $45 per year per family.
It's a good start, but it also looks like a recipe for a lot of false alarms, since the subscriber has to remember to cancel the alert when they arrive. A rep from the company told me, "At the moment, we expect the registrant to cancel. We do have some who forget, but they only forget once, so it has worked best this way."
I'm still looking for a company to develop a system that has Safety Trip Plan's notification escalation, but one that is also a bit easier to use--in other words, a service that will remind you to cancel the alarm, instead of requiring you to remember. The easier a service is, the more likely people will be to use it. It's one thing to file a plan when you're about to hike into the wilderness but another to file one when you're heading out to look at an apartment rental you saw on Craigslist. If a fail-safe alert system requires too much thought to use, people won't apply it in day-to-day travels.
I know a few people are working on new fail-safe alerting systems, and I hope to report on them in early January when I come back from my winter vacation.