Neil Palt, one of the team's communications specialists, cites this as an important factor. "This [system] isn't practical if we have to use separate [data] channels or dedicated data radios," he says. This is an important concern since the team's equipment budget is largely funded through grants and donations, and because the team shares a radio system with other county agencies, such as the fire and sheriff's departments.
Besides providing an additional level of safety, the location reporting system has provided other benefits as well — most notably increased efficiency. "We were primarily interested in the GPSMICs for safety reasons" explains PIO Trichler. "But knowing where everyone was also made it possible for us to deploy faster."
This additional benefit was apparent from the start when the team used GPSMICs during the 2009 Halloween celebration in Isla Vista, an unincorporated campus housing community near the University of California, Santa Barbara. Isla Vista attracts tens of thousands of costumed revelers each Halloween weekend. Naturally, local law enforcement agencies are on scene to make sure that everyone stays safe, and each year SBCSAR helps provide medical assistance to injured persons as well.
The team deployed in small groups on foot around Isla Vista, and also operated several SUVs to transport sick and injured people who could not be treated on-scene to areas where they could be transported by ambulance to a local hospital. One team member in each group and every SAR vehicle was outfitted with a two-way radio that had a GPSMIC device.
Reports sent by the devices were tracked from the team's mobile command vehicle, allowing the incident commanders to tell where each group and vehicle was at all times. When they received a report of an injury or medical emergency, they were able to quickly decide which team members were the closest to the incident location and dispatch them by radio.
Software is the key
While GPS-integrated hardware is remarkable, it is the mapping-dispatch software that enables over-the-air location reports to be used effectively. Computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software allows the coordinates to be shown on a map. "Without the software, the location reports would just be numbers," notes PRYME product manager, Scott Kuei. "The software takes those coordinates and makes them into something tangible and useful."
A basic CAD application, GPSMIC CheckPoint, is offered as part of the GPSMIC Tools software suite. However, PRYME also supports exporting the location information to other software applications, giving customers several choices when it comes to CAD applications. "We have a full application programming interface and we fully support integration of GPSMIC data into other third-party applications," Kuei explains.
SBCSAR chose a third-party application as its software solution: Terrain Navigator Pro by Mytopo. The TNP software has ideal features for search and rescue operations, such as full USGS topographical maps, which are invaluable to the team when navigating terrain in the nearby Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountains.
Because the mapping software that displays the location reports also saves the coordinates it receives, the team found an additional benefit after the event: a time-stamped database record of the movements during the incident. This record can be archived and reviewed for training and legal purposes.
Whether used by traditional law enforcement, search and rescue, firefighters, or other first responders, over-the-air location reporting systems can provide enhanced safety, efficiency, accountability and protection from liability.
In Santa Barbara, search and rescue officers continue to find that the geo-location reporting devices and mapping software are essential tools in protecting the public. Trichler says that the tracking technology is essential to every aspect of their search and rescue operations. "We're out there trying to ensure that missing people are safe. We need to stay safe while doing it."