Real-Time Tracking Helps Situational Awareness in Off-Grid Rescue Scenarios
By John Gallagher
Tuesday, September 13, 2022 | Comments
No time for back tracking. No time for second guessing. An Alzheimer’s patient had wandered off from a local residence into a densely forested area of surrounding Boone, North Carolina. The terrain was hilly, radio coverage was sparse, and temperatures were dropping. The patient was elderly and wasn’t dressed for the weather; that’s about all Fire Chief Jimmy Isaacs knew about him. The other thing the chief knew was that if the patient wasn’t found in a matter of hours, the weather could prove deadly.

The Town of Boone Fire Department had limited staff available for search-and-rescue operations that night, so Isaacs had to make sure personnel covered their assigned grids completely before moving onto the next. To maximize search efficiency, the chief activated a new real-time asset tracking system in his command vehicle. The system enabled him to monitor the team’s progress and communicate with them even though they were outside the normal coverage area of the county’s Motorola Solutions radio and commercial cellular networks.

In a search-and-rescue operation, especially at night, it’s too easy to lose track of which grids have been covered and whether they were canvassed thoroughly enough, Isaacs explained. But not on this night. He turned on the system’s real-time radio tracking functionality and watched as onscreen ‘breadcrumbs’ showed on the geographic information system (GIS) map exactly where each searcher had been. When Isaacs was satisfied a grid sector was completed, he directed each team member where to go next.

“This is one of the best benefits that we have found for this system,” said Isaacs.

For the patient and the rescue teams, there was a happy ending. In less than three hours, the patient was located and returned safely home. For the Town of Boone, the incident was among the first to demonstrate the GPS tracking system could be deployed as a tactical tool in applications as diverse as wildfires, search and rescue, and an active shooter event.

Over the next several months, Boone would deploy the system to enhance safety, increase efficiency and improve situational awareness as a ‘last-mile’ tracking solution where radios and mobile phones lost connectivity.

Tracking Resources
Watauga County, where Boone is the county seat, is located in the Appalachian Mountains of northwestern North Carolina with terrain varying from 2,000 to 5,500 feet in elevation. The Town of Boone is home to about 20,000 full-time residents and another 20,000 students at Appalachian State University during the academic year. Boone’s emergency services departments are responsible for 40.5 square miles of heavily forested and rugged terrain in the rural areas outside the town limits.

Boone is a sophisticated user of Esri GIS technology, and the emergency dispatch office leverages a multilayer ArcGIS digital map network. In 2017 the Fire Department opted to upgrade its radio tracking capabilities with the purchase of CompassTrac from CompassCom Software Corporation. This gave the department the ability to view the real-time locations of all in-vehicle and portable radios on any GIS map layer. The system provides details on the heading, speed, and identity of each unit. Most importantly, the solution provides web integration to the county E9-1-1 CAD system so that dispatchers can also view vehicle locations on their GIS maps.

CompassTrac is designed to track GPS signals from both wireless radios and mobile cellular devices, and Boone Fire uses the system primarily for integrations with its P25 radio network. The department’s vehicles and personnel are outfitted with Motorola APX mobile and portable radios. The vehicles communicate via in-vehicle cell modems, which provide faster polling times than wireless radio.

In addition to tracking locations at regular time, distance-traveled intervals, or on push to talk, the tracking solution enables voice communications between the fire command center and personnel in the field.

Isaacs and anyone in the communications center can utilize the system to see where every Boone fire vehicle is located in real time on a common operational picture. The same goes for personnel when they carry their portable radio units. The solution allows the command team to change the GIS background to different map or air/satellite photo layers and populate them with various features, such as buildings or contour lines.

A vital function, according to Isaacs, is playback mode where commanders can retroactively view where assets were deployed and moved during an emergency event. This provides tremendous learning opportunities for dealing with situations more effectively.

For Boone, however, some of the fire department’s most challenging incidents were occurring outside of the coverage area of its network either due to distance or terrain dead zones. When Boone Fire heard that CompassCom and Motorola were teaming to solve this problem common to so many rural locations, and the department was among the first to implement the new CompassRespond solution.

Situational Awareness, Safety, Efficiency
The off-the-grid solution provides all the same mobile and portable radio tracking and Esri GIS integration functionality of the original solution but with a major difference. Whereas CompassTrac resides on the Town of Boone’s enterprise computer server, CompassRespond operates on a ruggedized laptop to provide radio coverage in the field. Driven to or near the site of a remote incident in a fire command vehicle, the unit serves as an off-the-grid solution to track radios in the field.

Isaacs is typically the commander in the field directing operations with the new system while viewing activity on the GIS map onscreen. However, it’s important to note when the command vehicle has cellular connectivity, the laptop application pushes information back to the server solution so anyone in the communications center can also see what is unfolding at the remote incident site.

Boone Fire first deployed the remote solution in 2021and has relied on it as a tactical response tool on a regular basis since then. For the department, the greatest value has been delivered in search-and-rescue and wildland fire events, according to Isaacs. But perhaps the most unexpected advantage was seen during an active shooter situation.

After responding to two active shooter events in April and July of 2021, to support law enforcement operations, Isaacs realized how beneficial the system could be for all Town of Boone emergency responders. Police and fire units could all appear on the same map giving on-scene commanders vital, real-time situational awareness to prevent friendly fire incidents.

“We can colorize the radio [icons onscreen] to differentiate the fire personnel from the police officers,” said Isaacs.

Each incident provided hazards and opportunities where this technology could be utilized for enhanced safety and efficiency. Isaacs shared this information with the police chief, piquing the curiosity of Boone law enforcement officials who are considering adding the system to their emergency response toolbox.

Search-and-rescue operations in the deep Appalachian forests are common for Boone Fire, as described earlier, but the department also responds to water emergencies in the region. Isaacs says the tool has helped him find faster, more efficient routes to the incident once he knows precisely where it is occurring. It’s easy to take the same entry point for every emergency, but the onscreen maps let him pinpoint a different spot for a rescuer to reach the scene more quickly.

For searches on land, like that of the Alzheimer’s patient, Isaacs finds himself using the playback mode repeatedly while the incident is ongoing to ensure the teams have completely covered an area and didn’t miss anything. More than anything, this validates the efficiency and effectiveness of the search in real time, he explained.

“It gives us the ability to move on to the next search area more quickly,” Isaacs added.

One other vital function is the ability to load new digital maps on the fly. Isaacs recalls one search event on a heavily wooded private property where the county had no trail maps. Fortunately, a stakeholder provided a digital map which was immediately integrated into the tracking system, allowing the commander onsite to guide search teams through unfamiliar surroundings.

And for rescues that evolve into victim recovery operations, the system provides an encryption mode to ensure privacy so the general public can’t listen in on sensitive communications when sensitive information needs to be shared.

For wildland fires, the benefit is enhanced situational awareness. In densely forested areas, it is often difficult for the firefighters to get their bearings and know if they have reached the correct location to begin constructing fire lines. This is especially true in the dark of night. Already, Isaacs has used the off-the-grid application to guide the teams and position them at the right spots in the forests. He views the locations of individuals on the map to delineate the perimeter of the fire location, which may or may not have been reported correctly.

“I can see where everyone is located at the same time … and their positions relative to each other to fuels to the topography and to structures,” he said.

In numerous wildfires, the chief has redeployed first responders on the fly based on incoming information he receives, either to correct inaccurate initial reports or in response to a rapidly changing fire situation.

For Isaacs, the benefits of the off-the-grid tracking system are numerous, but the most important is the safety it provides his personnel.

“If something does go wrong, you know where each person is located,” he concluded.


John Gallagher joined CompassCom Software after a 32 year career at Motorola Solutions. During his career he served as an account executive, Rocky Mountain regional sales director and vice president of North American sales for the Motorola Information Systems. Gallagher also served as director of business operations for Motorola PremierOne CAD group and completed his career as the national account manager for the U.S. Department of the Interior as a member of the Motorola U.S. federal government markets division. Find more information about CompassCom at www.compasscom.com.



 
 
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