SEARCH VOLUNTEERS TEST NEW TRACKING SYSTEM
Rule No. 1 of being a search and rescue volunteer don't get lost.
It sounds simple. But consider the challenges faced by the 50 or so volunteers who might respond when someone is reported missing in Union County's backcountry.
There's a good chance it might be late afternoon with the light fading, if it is not completely dark.
The weather is often difficult snow, rain, slippery conditions.
The knowledge of the area on the part the person making the report has to be considered. Was the missing hunter or hiker planning to go down this ridge line, or that one?
Now, though, Union County's search and rescue group has a new tool that it believes will make keeping track of the searchers a much safer, easier part of the process.
Called a Pocket Tracker, the new equipment is a carry-along unit consisting of a GPS and radio unit, set to a HAM radio frequency. The unit reports in every few minutes automatically.
The signal is then automatically translated to a computer program, generating a line for each searching team or individual on a map of the area being searched.
Union County Search and Rescue member Jan Koegler learned about the new system at a search management class she taught in Boise in late 2003.
Tony Barrett, the inventor of the Pocket Tracker, was there and explained the Automatic Position Reporting System, which was designed specially for search work.
Koegler invited Barnett to come to La Grande that December. She also invited search and rescue personnel from Baker and Wallowa counties. Several people from the local HAM radio club also attended.
It was agreed to try to get a Wildhorse Foundation grant to purchase the equipment.
UCSAR completed the grant application process and received a $4,528 grant in late May 2004. That allowed them to purchase 10 of the units, 10 matching GPS units, a permanent digital repeater, two portable repeaters and the software to run the system that matched the computer mapping system already in place.
The digital repeaters digipeaters can pick up the Pocket Tracker signals and repeat them to a place where the base computer can pick them up, in a manner very similar to a television repeater tower, explains Trevor Jones, training officer for UCSAR.
It's taken most of the past year to build the Pocket Tracker units, which each arrived in more than 90 pieces.
Now, the units are being tested.
"This program interfaces with our maps," says Jones, who is often called on to help with the computer needs.
Before, people at a search and rescue base could mark areas on a computerized map that had been searched with searchers reporting in by radio. Now, the pocket unit can track the searchers themselves. A better map is then drawn of where searchers have been, where they are and which areas have yet to be searched.
The Pocket Tracker system is still in the early stages of development, Jones and Koegler explain.
But just like a radio, if the pocket unit is out of line with a repeater, it can't send a signal.
The permanent repeater is now set up near Morgan Lake. The portable repeaters are being tested at different locations to try to determine how to get the best coverage of the county's many valleys, riverbeds and considerable mountainous terrain.
Or in a critical search could a repeater be put in a plane? It has yet to be tested.
"Lots of things can go wrong," Jones warns.
UCSAR has already learned that the pocket locater's antenna must be pointing up. A unit placed in a horse's saddle bags, for instance, had the signal blocked in a recent test. Heavy tree cover, rock formations and various weather conditions may also interfere with the signal.
"It's not the be-all-and-end-all. Oh no," Jones cautions. "It's just one more tool."
But the locater software makes following the searchers easier. The computer reports a green line if the search team is moving, a red line if the team stops. A yellow flashing light indicates if a team misses reporting in.
"This is a tool to be deployed at the proper time," Koegler says. And the huge advantage, especially for a volunteer group such as UCSAR, is that it really doesn't require yet more training time.
Give a search and rescue volunteer group a pocket unit, make sure it's on, tell them to keep the antenna upright, and send them out to search.
"It will be a whole different management style," Jones believes.
But there is lots to do before the pocket units are in full use.
The county's search and rescue volunteers will be conducting more tests, next in the Starkey area in mid-July.
Until then, Jones chuckles, learning to use the new equipment is a lot like a popular cell phone commercial, but with the trackers checking in with the computer wondering
"Can you hear me now?"