USFWS employee receives award for suggestion to track firefighters with transmitter collars

Barton Rye award
FWS Branch Chief John Segar presents National Safety Award to Barton Rye Credit: Josh O’Connor, USFWS

Tallahasee, Florida – On May 7, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) presented its second annual National Fire Safety Award to Barton (Bart) Rye, Prescribed Fire/Fuels Technician from St Marks National Wildlife Refuge for a simple suggestion that helped direct a lost firefighter to safety during a prescribed fire.

The Award, presented by John Segar, FWS Chief, Branch of Fire Management from the National Interagency Fire Center, recognizes Rye for his innovative use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to more easily map, track and monitor the location of multiple firefighters, vehicles, and aircraft during large burns on the 70,000-acre refuge.

Rye suggested that his fire crew on foot and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) carry GPS transmitter collars, like those worn by his hunting dogs, so that up to ten resources could be tracked in real-time by a Burn Boss on a single hand-held receiver. ATVs and dozers on southeastern forests commonly become high-centered on hard-to-spot stumps in heavy vegetation where they cannot be readily seen by others, risking the loss of life and/or equipment during fires.

transmitter collar

The refuge first tested the use of the collars last spring. When a firefighter unfamiliar with southeastern terrain walked into a sawgrass pond while igniting a burn and becoming disoriented in knee-deep water with grass over his head, the GPS device allowed the Burn Boss to verbally direct the firefighter out of harm’s way. In February, a helicopter working a 3800-acre burn carried a collar to allow immediate location of the aircraft in case of an accident.

transmitter collar

“Bart’s initiative added a level of safety that wasn’t there before and may very well lead to national implementation,” said Segar. “This system is off-the-shelf and simple to operate.”

The Refuge purchased two hand-held receivers — one each for a Burn Boss and Firing Boss — and a transmitting collar for each prescribed fire crew member. A single transmitter and hand-held receiver together cost about $500.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge along Florida’s Gulf Coast conducts 40-50 prescribed burns annually, averaging 300-400 acres each, to reduce the risk of wildfire and maintain fire-resilient landscapes.

firefighter tracking
Map showing the tracks of three firefighters on a prescribed fire, in green, red, and blue.

(All photos were provided by the FWS.)
(Note from Bill: The Garmin website has information about one of their tracking systems.)

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

27 thoughts on “USFWS employee receives award for suggestion to track firefighters with transmitter collars”

  1. I’m not in favor of dog collars on firefighters. We need to improve our training on situational awareness and stress the fact that this is a job that requires thought, training and experience. Wildland firefighting is not an emergency, but takes well thought out planning and following guidelines already in place. Know your initial attack area. Of you’re from out of the area, take time to be aware of the local factors. Simply put, follow and be instinctually aware of the fire orders, wherever you are.

    1. So Jeff, what you’re saying is, follow all the rules, guidelines, orders, check lists, and watch outs, all 50+ of them, and everyone will be OK.

      It is not a new concept.

      How has that worked out so far?

      1. The fire orders cover it all. You can have tracking devices for everyone, but who’s going to do the tracking? If you get yourself in a situation where no one can help you, then tracking won’t help either. I think the effort would be better spent on improving communication (#7) and training.

        1. By 1979 the Forest Service had mandated all employees carry a fire shelter, but Cal Fire felt it was an unnecessary expense, that would tempt employees to get into more hazardous situations. Later that year Cal Fire lost four firefighters on the Spanish Ranch Fire, who very well could have survived had they been issued fire shelters. Ten days after the fire, all employees in Cal Fire were issued fire shelters. Real time tracking is creating sit. awareness for the the supervisors. I hope that the technology evolves and we embrace it. Imagine how difficult it would have been to be flying in the Bravo ASM, trying to find the trapped Granite Mtn Hotshots while their shelters were covered by an intense smoke column. A drop at the moment probably wouldn’t have made the difference, but what if next time it does?

          The most recent high profile tragedies have all been led by highly trained, experienced leaders from the district they operate in. Human error will always occur; now we must embrace technology to plug the holes in the swiss cheese model.

          1. CaliforniaFirefighter, using fire shelters as an example is not the best analogy. Up in Canada, no wildland firefighters have carried fire shelters on their person for almost a decade, and they deal with fuels as fire-prone and flashy as those you’ll find in California, or Yarnell. There has not been a single wildland firefighter lost to burnover.

            It is proper training and communications that avoids fireline fatalities. If wearing a fire shelter might tempt firefighters to place themselves in hazardous situations when they otherwise would not have gone there, well there’s a more pressing problem at hand, and all the technology in the world will not solve it.

    2. Jeff, I agree with you the real time location tracking does not substitute for thought, training or experience, but that does not mean it should not be implemented. The technologies there; let’s get it in place, and work on thought, training and experience too.

  2. This sounds like a simple common sense and economical solution to help track firefighters and their progress. But I fear the bureaucrats will get ahold of it and ruin a good idea.

  3. Good deal, I guess. How somebody who owned a dog thought of this before “professional” wildland firefighters is troubling me, its a really simple way of tracking locations, well being, and, as stated above, potentially saving a life. Yarnell happened, and it’s suddenly important to track firefighters…..this isn’t new technology, at all. Kudos to this gentleman for thinking outside the box, and a well deserved award for thinking of his people, but has it been that simple all along, or have we really just been that naïve? I’m not one for putting a GPS, emergency beacon, or panic button on every firefighter, engine, helicopter or crew, but it’s a matter of time before something along those lines happens, because we keep taking unnecessary risk, not thinking things through and acting on a whim. I am glad to see some progress being made in the safety of firefighters,however lets not be so safe we can’t effectively do our job, but lets not lose our focus. The best fire shelter is between your ears, and experience cant take that away; The last publication of two more chains came out and it sums things up pretty well, regarding our mentality.

    1. In this case, the refuge was too remote for cell phone coverage, so smart phone apps were not an option.

  4. I had a wonderful time at a Gordon Graham seminar. It really made me think about the way we look at risk management. Could radio tracking/real time location be a form of risk management? You bet. I like the sound of the idea, but questions about unintended consequences must be addressed.

    I really liked the example Mr. Graham used about when CHP started getting bikes with ABS. The accident rate went up because officers would either over estimate the braking ability, or would ride outside their skill level.

    Could real time tracking lead some to accept risks they would otherwise not accept? Could knowing EXACTLY where a crew is located cause a manager to leave them in an area a bit longer? Just like the assumption that some take greater risks because they have a fire shelter. I cant answer that one.

    We need to train more. We need to hire the right people. We need to focus on the human factors. The human factor question is the real Holy Grail question in my opinion.

    A dependence on technology is something that does not sit well with me. And I would hate to see training budgets cut to see gadgets bought. But how can you argue with something that could certainly save lives? You cant.

    But accidents and tragedy will continue if we sacrifice training for the sake of technology.

    If the right person is hired to take the job of tracking resorcess on a fire and surrounds them selves with the right people, man, what a tool this could be.
    But if the wrong person or people are in charge, on either side of the OPS chart, no amount of plugs are gonna fill all the holes in the cheese.

    1. Agree. False sense of security, and subject to failure. I know these events continue to happen, but look at AFF. It doesn’t prevent accidents. Spend the money on improving communication and train better.

      1. What are the specifics? What training or communications would have prevented the Esperanza or granite mtns catastrophes? In both instances the line supervision gave them clear direction that was not followed. In both instances there was no way to track their movement. Would seeing granite mtn move off the ridge have given ops enough chance to at least ask stead why?

        1. No. The answer to that question is unequivocally “no.” Ops Todd Abel was busy still dealing with the fire on the north end of the fire (Peeple’s Valley) at the time that the Granite Mountain Hotshots were moving, so he was not in a position to second-guess what they were doing. Ops Paul Musser had just arrived at the Shrine area (the east side of the fire – the northern part of Yarnell) at the time GM was moving and was just getting oriented, so HE was in no position to second-guess what GM was doing. Musser had been doing planning work all day – he only jumped in b/c the fire shifted east but Abel was still tied up on the NORTH end of the fire and unable to move to the east side (the Yarnell side) of the fire.

          None of the ops folks had better intel at that point than GM about what was going on at GM’s portion of the fire.

          1. There will always be the critical moment when bad decisions are made. All the tools/codes/rules don’t really matter if the people/person in charge doesn’t follow them. My son lay dying in a ravine because others used their cell phones instead of radios. Again, just a moment could have made the difference, but it starts with all doing the right thing, no matter how many rules/safeguards are put in place.

          2. Chris Mathews

            Interesting comment. I do understand that Canadian Firefighters do not wear fire shelters; I hope that it works out for them. The fires in Canada do not burn like they do in the chamise fields of Southern California. The Cedar Fire in 2003 ran 20k acres in an hour through neighborhoods and WUI communities. Firefighters will be there evacuating civilians.

            The analogy demonstrates what happens when agencies turn a blind eye to technology. It may be that Canadian Firefighters never suffer a line of duty death from not carrying fire shelters, but if it happens, it would be a shame to not have the technology with them. I agree that firefighters should not die on fires, but I also recognize that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and would prefer to be prepared for any extenuating circumstance.

            Mrs Hamm – I am so sorry for your loss. I hope a small sensor placed on our firefighters will prevent other parents from suffering similar tragedies.

  5. Many years ago on the Ouzel Lake fire working alone and very inexperienced as a fire guard I got some very good advice from the fire boss.
    1. Keep an eye on the fire and wind.
    2. Stay alert.
    3. Have a way out and a safe place to go.
    4. Have a second plan to get out.
    5. You are out there alone with no one to help you so stay out of trouble.

    Well things went all to hell very quickly with lots of bad cascading events. I’m glad at least I remembered his third and forth instructions. They saved my life and mistakes made left me a couple of burns to remember the other instructions and the fire.

    Despite all the advanced technology and resources available keep the fire safety basics at the head of the list and review it every fire, every day, every shift. 10/18.

    1. The 10 and 18 and LACES cannot protect against everything. Sometimes unexpected things happen – a person snaps a leg, a person goes down (non-respnsive) with heat stroke, etc. – such that the easy escape route to the safety zone becomes impossible.

      Then what? What if you do not have a fire shelter and a GPS tracker in THAT situation? What if the person out scouting suddenly goes down with heat illness and is non responsive but is WEARING a GPS tracker? Then at least someone can figure out where he/she is.

      These things would not have saved the Granite Mountain Hotshots (as best I can tell), but maybe they will save someone else someday.

      It is … short-sighted and counter-productive when the old-timers try to say that “one-foot-in-the-black” or the “10/18/LACES/LCES” can prevent every single sort of tragedy possible. Those things are great protective tools, but they do not protect against EVERYTHING. Sometimes unexpected things happen.

  6. I think this might be against Federal regulations if they are using Family Service Radio Frequencies FRS or similar non-regulated radio frequencies unless they got wavier from their Agency Frequency Manager before using them on the Fireline.

    “Family Radio Service (FRS) communications equipment shall not be used by anyone associated with federal wildland fire incidents or in instances that safeguard human life or property. This applies to agency, military, and contractor personnel. NTIA Manual, section 7.5.8, states: “federal entities may not purchase and operate FRS radios for planned communications operations that safeguard human life or property”. Additionally, the Departments of Agriculture and Interior have policies limiting the use of FRS radios. “

  7. They also broke FCC regulations by putting it in the helicopter:
    The highest point of any MURS antenna must not be more than 18.3 meters (60 feet) above the ground or 6.10 meters (20.0 feet) above the highest point of the structure to which it is mounted, whichever is higher.

    The reason for this rule is to limit the distance the radio can transmit that specific frequency.

    The rules for these Freqs are to help prevent interference as anyone can buy these radios without a license. There is no real way to deal with MURS radio interference as it is un-regulated.
    Getting a new Nationwide radio frequency licensed is pretty much impossible as everything is already allocated and is being used. Transmitting GPS info over existing analog frequencies would result in irritating digital noise the users would hear. Using P25 radios in Digital mode can send GPS and voice at the same time (expensive and we are not there yet, similar to Amtrak’s problem ).

  8. We are using the same system on our forest in the South East. It allows us to track our resources during prescribed fire operations which in my opinion is much different than a uncontrolled(dynamic environment) wildfire. Planned vs. Unplanned events. Our concern, which was initially met with a tramendouse amount of push back from management was we are unable to see the aircraft in our larger units. With the tracking device we can track up to eight miles out and know the exact location of the aircraft in the event something happens. AFF pings every 2 minutes, typical prescribed fire ops occur under 300 feet with the aircraft moving at an average of 50 knots. Thats a pretty broad search area when time is of the utmost importance in trying to save the lives of co workers. Believe me AFF and ELTs are only part of the answer, do your research. The South East is a perfect place for such a tool.
    On technology: we also us Avenza PDF map when flying front seat for prescribed fires operations. It allows you to almost track real time on your I pad/I phone with the prescribed fire map.

  9. Would a locator transmitter have perhaps made a difference in accidents such as the utv/tv rollover death of Token Adams out of Jemez Springs, NM, in 2013? At the very least it would have helped with the search and recovery.

  10. Just recieved an email from this company advertising a new app for smartphones. I do not have this app. but I do use some of DeLorme’s other products and I like them.
    Any ways the add for this app. says “Location sharing and tracking”
    Maybe this is a simple and CHEAP answer?!

  11. Interesting. I too have been in the situation of attempting to orient myself to a fast moving fire with a lot of resources involved. This would be an excellent tool to expedite the orientation of the rapidly expanding incident. Real time orientation of resource and situation status would be possible. Rather than a tedious process of attempting to duplicate a map, or being told vague info like “they were at this location earlier,” the OPS chief, the Branch Director, the Division Sup and ATGS could have real time locations of ground resources. If you had a fast moving fire spreading to the east,and can see a handcrew walking in front of the head fire, it can be a simple deal to alert the crew.

    At the very least, after the burnover, having had a bread crumb trail, or a working gps signal, the potentially injured firefighters could be found much quicker.

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