In dealing with wild fires and other emergencies, such as the Los Angeles County wild fires and a collapsed freeway overpass (below), the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department Search and Rescue Team learned the benefits of coupling GPS with communications.
Mapping-dispatch software enables over-the-air location reports, allowing CAD software to show coordinates on a map.
Once exclusively a tool for the military, today's highly accurate Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers provide the ability to know where you are instantly, with an accuracy of within 10 meters (approximately 32 feet). With a GPS in your vehicle, or even in your pocket, you are never lost. But knowing where you are is only half the battle for first responders. It's just as important that other people, particularly dispatchers, can locate you.
While devices that automatically track vehicles have been around for some time, the ability to remotely locate an individual officer on foot has been a weakness of traditional Automatic Vehicle Location reporting systems. Once an officer exits the squad car to conduct an investigation, interview a witness, or pursue a suspect, these AVL systems leave the dispatcher with no way to automatically determine where the officer is.
New technology is changing that by taking the location reporting equipment out of the vehicle and placing it directly into the hands of the individual officer. This type of integrated technology allows truly personal location reporting by integrating a GPS receiver and data modem into a common remote speaker microphone, connected to the officer's portable two-way radio.
The PRYME GPSMIC is capable of sending data messages containing the user's location coordinates over a normal voice radio channel. Reports are sent at various programmed intervals, such as when the user presses the Push-to-Talk button on the microphone, after a set period of time has elapsed, or when the user has moved a certain distance from the last reported location.
These location coordinates are received by radio and computer equipment located at the dispatch center. Special software displays the locations on a map as they are received, allowing the dispatcher to know where individual officers and vehicles are at all times.
Practical application: search and rescue ops
Among the adopters of the geo-location technology is the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department Search and Rescue (SBCSAR) Team. The team deploys its volunteer members on an average of two incidents per week in the beautiful but sometimes dangerous wild areas of coastal Southern California. The types of incidents SBCSAR handles are diverse and include searching for lost or missing persons, assisting in evacuations during wild fires, helping to secure evidence at remote crime scenes, responding to reports of downed aircraft, and handling many other types of wilderness medical emergencies including swift-water and high-angle rock rescues.
Although SBCSAR members are highly trained in search and rescue protocols, the team operates in small groups in remote areas, so the individual safety of each team member is a major concern. It was clear to Nelson Trichler, an incident commander and public information officer for the team, that an over-the-air based GPS tracking solution was needed. Trichler explains: "Each officer can carry a GPS receiver with them so that they know where they are, but that doesn't help you find them if they are incapacitated and unable to answer radio calls."
The geo-location reporting mic offered a possible solution: with each search team and SAR vehicle equipped with a GPSMIC, it would become possible to easily track officers while they respond to incidents. In fact, there were several capabilities which made this equipment an attractive solution for the team's search and rescue operations. One of the main advantages: compatibility with a wide variety of two-way radios, including the Kenwood portable radios that the team was already using. And because the location reports are sent over the voice radio channel, a dedicated data channel or any additional radio system backbone are not required. This meant that the system could be deployed quickly and with a minimum of infrastructure and expense.
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."