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