Starting around 5:25 PM, Thursday, emergency responders including ambulance, Highway Patrol, fire departments and Sheriff were dispatched to a reported overturned vehicle with injuries. The exact location was unknown and when fire and ambulance crews were unable to find the accident, they fanned out searching highways and back roads throughout Big Valley.
As the incident grew, there appeared to be a lack of central co-ordination. Individual units were suggesting new roads to search over the radio, but no central command was taking charge of the dispatching units in an organized way.
About a half hour after the original dispatch radio traffic revealed that this was an ONSTAR alert (ONSTAR is the system sold by General Motors as an emergency locating system) and gave out a Latiude and Longitude over the radio. Despite this supposedly accurate location by Latitude and Longitude, no one was able to describe the location so crews could actually go there. Fire crews in vehicles were heard to ask if anyone had a GPS unit in the vehicle and if so could he drive there to figure out where it is.
Locating Latitude Longitude positions on a map is an easy task as simply typing in the co-ordinates into a mapping website of Acme Mapper immediatly identified the reported location to be on Lookout Hackamore Rd about 2 miles south of Highway 139. For some reason no agency could determine this and direct teams to the area for several minutes.
Meanwhile, a search and rescue helicopter was dispatched from Redding but due to weather and approaching darkness never arrived on the scene. By 6:50 PM crews staged near the reported accident scene and prepared for a search and rescue mission. The supposed accident was never found.
The incident was finally sorted out as an accidental triggering of an emergency locator. The accident was reported by Burlington Northern Railroad when they noticed that a truck of theirs on the way from Klamath Falls to Quincy triggered an emergency response on a BNSF system much like ONSTAR but owned by the railroad. When they attempted to contact the vehicle they could get no response so they notified the CHP of the supposed accident.
Meanwhile, the vehicle apparantly continued to drive down the road transmitting emergency signals and further confusing the situation by transmitting conflicting lattude/longitude positions. (The vehicle was happily driving down the road!). When the truck reached Susanville, they contacted their home office and were unaware of the massive search they started.
Dan Bouse, Modoc County's emergency supervisor said this was a classic case of technology catching them off guard. The confusion was a good lesson which pointed out weaknesses in the system and they are being addressed.