Search and rescue makes for demanding work, particularly when search teams must plot out grids by hand on a map, choose landmarks for the start and endpoints, and wait for forensics teams to mark evidence each time it's uncovered.
That's how the Wayne Township Fire Department used to perform search and rescue; but after deploying GPS, Capt. Mike Pruitt is not looking back.
For the past two years, the Indiana fire department has used a combination of Garmin GPS handheld receivers and Garmin MapSource GIS mapping software to expedite search-and-rescue operations throughout the greater Indianapolis region.
Many state, city and local agencies have found that GPS enables them to automate cumbersome manual processes such as search and rescue, incident response and fleet management, saving time and money in the process.
When Wayne Township's search-and-rescue team is deployed, incident commanders are able to use the Garmin GIS software to splice the search area, download each segment's perimeter into the Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx handhelds, and send rescue teams on their way.
As soon as the teams reach their starting point, the handhelds begin recording. If they come upon evidence, they can press a button to mark its location and either call in the coordinates to the incident commander or download the recorded data to the incident commander's notebook back at the command post. All information is aggregated in the mapping software so that command can easily see which areas have been searched and what items were found and alert other search teams.
"In areas like a state park, or outlying areas of Indianapolis where it's more difficult to locate landmarks, GPS and the GIS mapping software are invaluable," Pruitt says. "They help us get search teams going faster and make better use of their time. They can leave evidence in place and move on, and they don't have to re-search areas that have already been checked."
Lt. Kevin Adam, search and rescue coordinator for the central division of the Maine Warden Service in Greenville, also relies on GPS because search and rescue has always been a challenge in the Pine Tree State's rural environments. "We used to give our search teams a map and compass and tell them to start at such and such a stream and bear right for a quarter mile," Adam says. "If the waterway had split because beavers built a dam since the last time that area was mapped, then we'd have problems."
Even worse, if someone found a footprint on a riverbank, they'd have to try to describe where they were. "It was so imprecise," Adam says.
The Maine Warden Service now uses DeLorme XMAP GIS mapping software and a mix of DeLorme Earthmate GPS PN-40 and Garmin GPSMAP 76 handhelds to automate the search-and-rescue process. Like Pruitt's team, Adam's group segments the search field and then downloads the perimeter coordinates into the handhelds. If a team spots anything via air, water or land that would be of use to forensics, they mark the location on the device and then transfer the information to the incident commander. "Using GPS and GIS, we're able to save up to 30 minutes per search team," he says.
Adam adds that every district game warden and supervisor in the service has a GPS handheld to use for rapid response. The team is even contemplating having its canine units use GPS to allow even more accurate readings during a search.
While Pruitt and Adam have found success with GPS in the search-and-rescue arena, Judd Muskat is seeing similar results responding to environmental spills.
Muskat is a staff environmentalscientist and GIS coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Game's Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR), which is responsible for coastlines from Eureka to San Diego. An oil spill in 1997 convinced him that the team needed GPS.
"We had lots of crews out collecting data on forms, and they were not from the area. They'd write down where they thought they had spotted problems, but they'd get the name of the beach or point wrong," Muskat says. "It took weeks if not months to straighten out that information."
Today, OSPR crews tap a variety of Garmin handhelds to mark what they find with exact GPS coordinates, such as where the oil is landing on beaches, where wildlife is starting to gather and where samples are being collected.
This standardization has helped OSPR quickly mobilize resources, such as shoreline cleanup assessment teams and wildlife transport and recovery teams. "The timing in these spills is crucial. If you can't get people the information they need in an hour or so, it's old news," Muskat says.
GPS is useful not only in crisis situations, but also for everyday government agency operations. "While first responders are the natural reactors to the technology because time is of the essence, there are other tangible applications for GPS that help make better use of limited resources, such as fleet management," says Rob Funk, senior analyst for Homeland Security and Justice and Public Safety at research firm Input. In the city of Norman, Okla., Fleet Management Superintendent Mike White has placed GPS receivers on sanitation trucks to ensure the vehicles are being used in an optimal manner. "We were worried that truck drivers were doing their routes inefficiently and leaving the trucks idle for more than five minutes, which is too long," White says. Both scenarios end up wasting gas and causing wear and tear on the vehicles.
Today, the sanitation supervisors use centralized fleet management software, which utilizes GIS to determine the optimal route for each driver. Once the driver sets out on his or her route, the GPS receiver under the dash transmits data to the software every 10 seconds to let the supervisor know the truck's location. During or after the route, a supervisor can check to see that the truck was kept in motion and followed the most cost-effective route.
Although White does not have exact figures, he says the deployment of the 53 GPS receivers has helped the city enjoy a reduction in fuel costs and fleet maintenance costs. "The greatest thing, though, is that we've increased productivity," he says.
Input's Funk points out, "GPS oftentimes does not involve a lot of overhead, yet state, city and local agencies can extract a lot of benefits from it."
The city of San Jose has used GPS to empower its citizens. Using a free iPhone application called San Jose 311, citizens can snap pictures of graffiti and send them to the city council. Council staff can determine the location based on its GPS coordinates and alert the appropriate city agency. For example, the city's anti-graffiti team might recognize the pattern of the graffiti tag and notify police so they can be on the lookout for gang violence.