Emergency responders go high tech

Posted: Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Having a GPS receiver and knowing how to use it are two different things, or so Stephen Brown will tell you.

You can buy a GPS receiver and learn how to navigate with it in a matter of minutes, but when you're helping rescue workers locate a downed airplane, a missing hiker, or in Brown's case, pieces of space shuttle, you're using GPS for a lot more than mere navigation.

"When you use (a GPS receiver) for navigation, you're using it for yourself," said Brown, the agriculture and horticulture agent for the Copper River/Matanuska-Susitna Cooperative Extension Service operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"When you're using it for emergency response, you're using someone else's maps and resources. If you don't know how to read coordinates, you could end up in a wrong location or give 911 a wrong location, which in Alaska could be life threatening."

The Kenai Peninsula Borough's Office of Emergency Management partnered with the University of Fairbanks Cooperative Extension office on the Kenai Peninsula to offer a beginner's and advanced course on how to use GPS for the purposes of emergency response.

The class was offered Friday and Saturday to Civil Air Patrol Cadets, members of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), as well as people who did Global Information Systems mapping for the borough. Glenda Landua, the OEM citizen coordinator, said her office helped organize the sessions and enrollment got so big Brown was booked for six back-to-back sessions in two days.

"Our hope is once (the students) figure out how to use them, they can use them for emergency," she said. "The vision is to have people familiar with it so they can use it for search and rescue."

GPS or the Global Positioning System is what Brown calls the pinnacle of human technological achievement.

Maintained by the U.S. Department of Defense, GPS is a network of satellites, which transmits radio signals to Earth.

It's the most accurate navigation system ever created, Brown said, in some cases receivers can tell you where to locate something within the width of a human hair. But because coordinates come in three different formats, communicating an exact location to an emergency responder can be difficult.

Brown was one of the many volunteers who combed Texas after the space shuttle Columbia exploded in 2003. That was the first time GPS was used in emergency response, he said, but because many of the volunteers and officials who were searching for debris couldn't communicate their coordinates effectively, what should have been a three-day-long process took 13 days.

"If we had not used GPS, we could have recovered the shuttle quicker," he said. "If we had one hour to do a workshop, we would have shaved 13 days to about three. We did more in the last day of recovery than the 12 previous days."

Michael Huckabay, a retired training safety officer for the Office of Emergency Management and Central Emergency Services firefighter, ran drills in the Caribou Hills with his GPS receiver almost 20 years ago.

In addition to carrying a Garmin 12, he always carries extra batteries and a compass, saying a GPS receiver is electronic it could fail.

"My compass will not fail," he said.

With a GPS receiver, the user has to figure out where he or she is going if they expect the device to be of any help, Huckabay said.

The user also has to make sure he or she doesn't totally rely on the device, Huckabay said, that he or she watches where they're going.

"I believe you can use a GPS to navigate in a car (but it's) dangerous," he said. "I don't teach people to follow their GPS. When I'm traveling (a long) distance I don't use the screen. You can do stupid things."

Gary Knopp, a member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and the Civil Air Patrol, said he and other members of the CAP decided to take the class in order to keep up with changing technology.

Using a Garmin GPS 95XL, Knopp said he's able to navigate between all airports in North and South America.

"We consistently (use it) in the airplane for navigation," he said. "It also works well in caribou hunting. GPS is good for so many applications I can't begin to list them all."

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at jessica.cejnar@peninsulaclarion.com.

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