Field tests of tracking devices for firefighters

We have often advocated the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighting, which is knowing the real time location of firefighters and the fire.

There are many different technologies and platforms for collecting and displaying data about the location of the fire, but the information collected has yet to become commonplace in the hands fireline supervisors on the ground.

A similar situation exists for tracking the location of firefighting resources — personnel and equipment. The technology has existed for years, but the “deciders” in the National and State capitals have not recognized its importance for providing situational awareness, so it is only being used in a few scattered areas.

The Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting (yes, they are still using that name) recently evaluated and tested two consumer-level personal tracking devices, the SPOT Gen3® and the Garmin inReach® (formerly known as the DeLorme inReach).

The executive summary from their report is below. The full document can be downloaded HERE.


Executive Summary
Wildland firefighters frequently operate in remote areas and are often a significant distance away from their supervisors or other nearby units. Additionally, wildland firefighters typically communicate with voice radios operating in analog mode, which does not facilitate location tracking or other digital situational awareness. One technology proposed to overcome these limitations and provide GPS location tracking and messaging for firefighters is satellite messengers. The Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting (CoE) was requested to conduct a study of these devices to analyze their utility for firefighters. This study illustrated the technical specifications of two consumer-grade satellite messengers, the SPOT Gen3® and the Garmin inReach® (formerly known as the DeLorme inReach), and provided information on service options and costs. The study also assessed the capabilities of the SOS feature common to both devices and employed field trials to evaluate the performance of the devices in various types of vegetation and terrain.

SPOT Gen3The CoE found that the SPOT device provides a one-way flow of information from the device user to others using predesignated email addresses, text messages, or website access. This device requires programming ahead of use to designate the time interval for location tracking, as well as the content of the three types of messages it can send. The inReach device provides a two-way flow of information, with others able to communicate with the device user via email, text message, or website.

The SPOT device successfully transmitted a test SOS message from a meadow with a clear view of the sky, which then led to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control Duty Officer being notified of the SOS within 3 minutes. The SOS testing scenario was on a prescribed pile burn under the control of the area interagency fire management unit and the plan was for the Duty Officer to contact the interagency dispatch center regarding the SOS and have them establish radio contact with the unit in distress. Unfortunately, the phone system at the dispatch center was down during the test and no notification could be made. The CoE recommends that for mission-critical applications like wildland fire, the SOS feature be tied directly into relevant computer-aided dispatch systems—a complex requirement for interagency centers that frequently host firefighters from off-unit and from a variety of agencies.

Garmin inReachTo determine the utility of the satellite messengers for personnel tracking, six field trials were conducted—two each in minimal, moderate, and heavy forest canopy. For each level of canopy, one test was conducted in rolling terrain and one in rugged terrain. These tests sought to establish the rate at which the location of a firefighter walking the perimeter of a simulated 100-acre fire with both devices set on a 5-minute tracking interval would be known to a supervisor watching in real-time via an Internet connection.

The CoE determined that both devices can transmit location information successfully with minimal delays when used under minimal and moderate forest canopies. However, under a heavy forest canopy the devices experienced difficulties. The SPOT device failed to transmit 20% of points and the inReach device took more than 5 minutes to transmit 50% of points (and during one test, failed to transmit 35% of points). The CoE recommends shortening the tracking interval when operating under heavy forest canopies to increase the odds of successful transmissions and cautions against relying solely on these devices to achieve situational awareness for firefighters operating under heavy forest canopies.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

8 thoughts on “Field tests of tracking devices for firefighters”

  1. What is the battery life on these units and I would imagine that directly correlates to how often a ping is sent out? If the batts are going low is there a way to check them during shift to prevent the dreaded DPH 1 way conversations we are all familiar with that tell us to grab another clamshell? Its a start but hiker duty is rarely the same as fire duty….Keep poking them Mr. Gabbert….someone is finally listening it seems

    1. Rocco, Battery life on the inReach unit at a 10 minute tracking interval is 100 hours. If the device stops for an extended amount of time the device will switch to a 4 hr interval until the unit starts moving again. You can see the battery life on the unit and anyone monitoring your InReach from the web portal will see when your battery is low. They can also see if your message is delayed.

  2. I can’t foresee engine captains nor hotshot supts wanting to be tracked all the time, this looks like an item that will be conveniently forgotten at the truck each shift.
    The only thing this will be good for is showing which resources are sitting around not doing much. If all the ICP resources will wear these as well, I’d be for it, so we can all see them taking a three hour coffee break in the dining tent after morning briefing.

  3. It’s merely another Attack of the Good Idea People ploy. Definitely NOT the answer.
    It’s just more feel good BS so they can supposedly send a helicopter or an airtanker to “save” you. If you need something like this to “save” you, then you have really screwed up.

    Knowing, heeding, mitigating, and following the tried-and-trued Wildand Fire Rules works every time.

  4. “conveniently forgotten” at the truck? For all the families out there with loved ones who have experienced a loss, this could be a lifesaver.

    We are the ones silently cheering this on. Please, please go forward with this important work!! If nothing else, do it in the name of firefighters who lost the biggest battle of them all…while waiting for help.

  5. If you want to keep your location on a fire secret from your supervisor, you should seek a different line of work.

    On the Yarnell Hill Fire a tracking system would not have prevented the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots from initially leaving the area where they were safe, but after they began moving if anyone with a better view of the fire (the real time location of the fire) had seen on their display that the crew was moving into a dangerous direction, they could have alerted the crew, possibly before they reached that canyon. As you probably know, the overhead on the fire thought the crew had remained at their safe spot and didn’t know they had relocated.

    On the 2006 Esperanza Fire in southern California, Branch II and the Captain of Engine 57 had an understanding that the Engine crew would not remain at the Octagon house, where they eventually died (see page 9 of the USDA OIG report). The five-person crew was supposed to go to an area identified as a safety zone and not try to defend the house, according to information provided by Branch II. For some reason the crew decided to defend the house, setting up hose lays and a portable pump. The fire entrapped them at that location, killing all five members of the crew. If Branch II, an Operations Section Chief, or a Safety Officer had access to real time information about the location of their resources on the fire and the real time location of the fire, it is likely that the engine crew would have been directed, again, to go to the safety zone as instructed earlier by Branch II.

    These are just two examples, but unfortunately 24 firefighters died.

    When the present day military sends their warriors into a major battle, do you think they have systems that provide information about (1) where the enemy is, and (2) where their own forces are? Do firefighters deserve the same protection? A wildfire can easily be monitored in real time from a manned or unmanned aircraft, day or night, and off-the-shelf systems already exist to track firefighters.

  6. Why not just use the LRRP capability of the P25 radios they already have? No additional cost, higher reliability, and higher power output.

  7. My issue is that someone thinks that if they know where my location is they can take my autonomy away in making safe decisions. Mr. Marsh should have from his position at the ranch in Yarnell have seen the fire and the location of his crew, and the results were tragic.
    And the root cause of Yarnell and the Esperanza fire was that the firefighters were taking aggressive action to protect structures. Canada does not use fire shelters because they don’t put their firefighters in situations where they would need them. The Canadian yearly firefighter fatality average from 1990-2015 is 2.4, the U.S.,in the same time, is 17.0. I feel as though tracking devices are just another tool to justify the risk taken in our supppression tactics when really we need to address if our tactics are too risky.
    In developing a safety management program and controlling hazards, you first need to address policy, procedures, and training before using mechanical elements (I.e shelters and tracking devices) to reduce hazard.

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