USFS to buy thousands of satellite emergency notification devices

Example of a Satellite Emergency Notification Device. Photo by Bill Gabbert

The U.S. Forest Service has issued a solicitation indicating that they intend to purchase thousands of Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SEND). The specifications listed by the USFS require that the device be able to:

  • Determine location using GPS.
  • Send via satellite an emergency message containing the device’s location after pressing an “SOS” button. A monitoring facility would then notify a nearby emergency services agency.
  • Track location by sending the device’s location via satellite every 10 minutes, minimum, if activated by pressing the TRACK button.
  • Display the tracked locations on a map on the internet.
  • Send a pre-programmed HELP message including the device’s location.
  • Send a “check-in” message, including the location, after pressing a “check-in” button.

I have used one of these for years. In fact, the photo is my “SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger“, which is a second generation SPOT device. I always carry mine when I am on an extended motorcycle trip, or sometimes on a 4-wheeled vehicle trip. The two features that I like best about it are the SOS which works via satellite even when there is no cell phone service, and the tracking feature so that my family or friends can know where I am. If I’m running late, they can check the map on the web site and know that I’m still on the road and moving… or not.

On the solicitation the USFS says they want the devices because:

Forest Service employees routinely work in the wilderness. Their main mean of communication while in the wilderness is 2 way radios. Normally the employees use mobile and handheld radios to communicate their locations and status to the dispatch center. Approximately 20% of the forest is outside of the area of coverage of radios because of terrains.

It will be interesting to find out if they can use this device to track multiple wildfire suppression resources on one map. Will a dispatcher be able to see where all of their engines and crews are? Could it even be displayed on a smart phone? Will an Incident Commander or Branch Director have access to a map that shows where their firefighting resources are? This could add an element of safety. At times like this I think of the Esperanza fire, and wonder if it would have made a difference if the Operations Section Chief or Division Supervisor had had maps in front of them that displayed the location of Engine 57 at the top of that drainage before the fire overran their location. Could five lives have been saved?

Actually, using this little portable device for mass resource tracking is a half-assed approach, rather than putting professional-quality location-tracking devices in all wildfire suppression rolling stock and radios…like many professional-quality fire departments, police departments, and ambulance services have been doing for years.

I am not entirely fluent in translating contracting-speak into English, but it appears that the USFS has $1.2 million burning a hole in their pocket and they want to use all of it over the course of one year to buy as many devices as they can, to include a year of service — monitoring, mapping, and satellite messaging. A SPOT Personal Tracker is listed for $60 to $170 on Google, and a year of service costs $99. There are other brands out there with different pricing. The government would no doubt get a deal if they buy a few thousand, so picking some numbers out of the air, if they pay a total of $120 per device for a year, that would be 10,000 units. WOW. Even if they pay retail at Best Buy for a SPOT device, on sale now for $60, then pay retail for service, $99, that’s 7,500 of the little things.

Here is another excerpt from the USFS solicitation:

4.3 Minimum delivery requirements shall be 1,000 units 30 days ARO; 3,000 units (or the balance of the total) 60 days ARO; 5,000 units (or the balance of the total) 90 days ARO; and the balance 120 days ARO.

This technology is evolving rapidly, and since the SPOT is on sale at Best Buy, maybe the company is about to introduce a third generation device. DeLorme has an inReach device that can apparently do most if not all that a SPOT can do, but can also send AND receive text messages… anywhere. It’s a little pricey, costing several times more than a SPOT.

UPDATE, January 14, 2014: The U.S. Forest Service bought 6,000 of the devices. There is a discussion of them in the report of an ATV accident that occurred on the Schoolhouse Fire in New Mexico in 2013.


Thanks go out to Robert

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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.

3 thoughts on “USFS to buy thousands of satellite emergency notification devices”

  1. Bill:

    May I suggest it’s time for you to take a closer look at the new DeLorme inReach, which picks up where Globalstar SPOT leaves off. The two-way inReach provides follow-me tracking, find-me locating (you can ping the device remotely to get an on-demand position update without waiting for the next tracking report), SOS tracking with message receipt notification and full duplex text messaging via a wireless interface with your Apple or Android smartphone. It uses the Iridium satellite network for true global coverage, high network reliability and low-latency data connections (end-to-end message delivery less than 60 seconds anywhere on the face of the earth. The two-way link is critical in SAR scenarios. SAR authorities have noted that there is an extremely high incidence of false alarms (90% or more) from one-way SEND beacons due to accidental activations or user error. With the return link, the SAR center can send a message back to the remote device asking if it is a false alert, determine the nature of the emergency before deploying resources and reassure the sender that the message has been received and help is on the way.

  2. I’ve used SPOT all over the world. It is , in my opinion, a great device. It’s important to know, however, that the user cannot send a message from the unit. Those messages, are pre-typed to a website. The way I’ve used it, is that if I “check in”…. Having already planned for a time frame…. I’m “good” but not on schedule. If I press the “help” button… I’m hurt, but may or may not need help….. If I shut down, and send another “help” message at an odd interval…. two of three minutes, for instance……(You have to shut down, however, because it will automatically resend “help messages on a timed basis .. I think it’s 8 minutes)….. I actually need help. And 911 button is the 911 button…. The best thing is that it is a very light weight unit. It worked for me everywhere but Antarctica and South Africa….

    1. That may not have been as clear, as I had intended… I think there is a way to interpret the generic messages based on what the situation is… That may be based on where the incident is, etc. For instance, my wife knows that for a routine run on the PCT, a check in means one thing…. A run through the Australian Outback…. A check in was a check in to say hello….. A help didn’t mean I needed help… It meant that I was out of the race…. So for instance, if a smokejumper spotter was going to put some jumpers out on a particularly knarly fire… and I’m speaking of my experience in AK where there was no com with dispatch. They might discuss it in the airplane before the jump (as it’s too late to change a message at this point), and the spotter would make contact with dispatch as to what any message might mean… For instance; “check in” means send an airplane, so we can talk to someone (this could mean the fire blew up….need more crews… whatever… “Help” means send a helicopter, or something, at first light, etc. “911” is frankly, always 911… The cool thing is the new SPOT is lighter, and the “help” and “911” buttons are guarded.


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