Colorado to evaluate devices for tracking firefighters

Wildfire Today has unabashedly advocated the the use of devices that would make wildfire supervisors aware in near-real-time the location of their firefighting resources. Our thinking is, if that and the location of the fire were known on the Yarnell Hill and Esperanza Fires the lives of 24 firefighters might have been saved. (See tag for “Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighting Safety”).

In 2014 the governor of Colorado signed legislation creating the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting (CoE), whose mission statement says they will:

…research, test, and evaluate existing and new technologies that support sustainable, effective, and efficient aerial firefighting techniques.

Apparently the organization interprets that mission very broadly since they have started a study to evaluate the effectiveness and practicality of small GPS-enabled devices that can communicate with firefighters on the ground and keep track of their location via satellites.

In 2012 the U.S. Forest Service bought 6,000 devices like this. We have not heard much about how that acquisition turned out.

Below is information about the new Colorado project provided by the (CoE).


“In the interest of improving communications for, and safety of, wildland firefighters, the Center of Excellence (CoE) is evaluating the use of satellite-based messenger devices by Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) firefighters and cooperators. These devices can enable firefighters to send messages and they also track the location of personnel without using cellular or conventional radio networks. To date, the primary users of these devices have been the civilian outdoor community; however, military and civil government agencies have begun experimenting with integrating these devices into their operations. Early results show that satellite messengers can be effective at supplementing existing radio and cellular communication networks.

Device Overview

Two types of devices are being evaluated by the CoE. The first is the lower-cost SPOT Gen3, which can send one-way messages over the Globalstar satellite network. Since SPOT Gen3’s have sending capability only, it is not possible to obtain delivery confirmations for successful messages. To increase the probability that messages are successfully delivered, the SPOT sends multiple copies of the same message.

The SPOT Gen3 device can send the following types of messages:Spot3

  • An SOS message that triggers a search and rescue response
  • A “Help” message that delivers a preset distress message and the device’s location to designated contacts
  • A customized message with preset content that is input into the SPOT website prior to a trip
  • A message stating that the device user is “OK,” which is sent to designated contacts
  • Tracking points sent at preset intervals that show the device’s current location

The second device that the CoE is evaluating is the DeLorme inReach. Two models of the inReach are being evaluated—the basic model and a premium model that includes GPS mapping and navigation. The inReach can send two-way messages over the Iridium satellite network, which provides delivery confirmations for successful messages. In addition, text messages can be sent to firefighters in the field.

The DeLorme InReach device can send the following types of messages:De Lorme InReach

  • An SOS message that triggers a search and rescue response, though in this case the search and rescue coordination center can customize the response based on a text message conversation with the device user
  • Preset or customized messages sent via a virtual keyboard, or the inReach device can pair with Apple or Android smartphones and allow users to control all features of the device, including text input through their smartphones
  • Tracking information at preset intervals

The SPOT Gen3 device retails for $149.99, the DeLorme inReach base model (inReach SE) for $299.99, and the premium model (inReach Explorer) for $379.99. Satellite service subscriptions comprise a substantial portion of the cost of operating these devices, with cost primarily governed by how frequently tracking points can be sent by the device. Service for the SPOT device must be bought on an annual basis, while service for the DeLorme devices can be purchased on either an annual or a month-to-month basis. If the DeLorme devices are used for 8 months or less each year, the month-to-month plan will be the most cost-effective option.

Summary of Device and Service Costs:

SPOT (annual) DeLorme Contract (annual) DeLorme Month-to-Month (plus $24.95 annual fee)
Device Cost $149.99 $299.99/$379.99 $299.99/$379.99
Base Option
  • $150
  • Location every 10 minutes
  • User must push tracking button every day
  • Predefined messages
  • $300
  • Location every 10 minutes
  • 40 texts/month
  • $34.95/month
  • Location every 10 minutes
  • 40 texts/month
Mid-Range Option
  • $200
  • Location every 5 minutes
  • Predefined messages
  • $600
  • Location every 10 minutes
  • Unlimited texting
  • $64.95/month
  • Location every 10 minutes
  • Unlimited texting
Premium Option
  • $300
  • Location every 2.5 minutes
  • Predefined messages
  • $960
  • Location every 2 minutes
  • Unlimited texting
  • $99.95/month
  • Location every 2 minutes
  • Unlimited texting

The following chart represents the cost of buying and operating a device for two years, assuming that the DeLorme devices are on the month-to-month plan and are used for 6 months each year:

personnel tracker chart

An enterprise plan is also available for the DeLorme devices. This plan charges for each byte of data used by the device rather than by the various texting and tracking features. As a result, a direct comparison to the consumer plans is difficult, but superior value may be found if usage is carefully monitored. Real-world testing of this plan is being conducted by the CoE to gain insight into its value.

Both the SPOT and DeLorme devices may be used by DFPC wildland fire personnel during fire assignments and remote project work. Using either device, personnel in need of emergency medical assistance or personnel lost in the wildland will be able to summon search and rescue assistance. Additionally, personnel will have the ability to send messages with other content to supervisors or incident commanders, though this functionality is limited with the SPOT device. Finally, the location of personnel can be tracked in near real-time using either the companion websites for the devices or using the Colorado Wildfire Information Management System (CO-WIMS).”

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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.

4 thoughts on “Colorado to evaluate devices for tracking firefighters”

  1. The report about the fatal ATV accident that occurred on the Schoolhouse Fire in New Mexico in 2013 has a lengthy discussion about the tracking devices beginning on page 24. It includes the results of tests conducted on the ability of the device to maintain communication in various densities of tree canopies. The final analysis was that it “was determined to be an effective transmitting device, even under heavy tree canopies.”

    The USFS bought 6,000 of them in 2012.

  2. The FS did spend $1.2 million (and then some) and acquired the devices. Some have been issued, but most employees are not aware of the program.

    I found that you need a clear view to the south not blocked by trees or terrain for it to work well.

    Management tried to make use of the trackers mandatory when away from the office. For safety reasons they said, but OPM regulations prevented logging employee location and time information.

  3. They need to contact Robin Brooks; Arizona BLM. She helped develop their program that uses the tracking device and two to three dedicated people tracking them all the time when working. She has a great program.

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