Rescue teams that normally use smoke and mirrors to guide helicopters to remote emergency scenes are getting some high-tech help: State troopers, sheriff’s deputies and ambulance crews based in Kittitas County are being equipped with global positioning system units that can pinpoint locations within yards.
Without special aids, finding rescue sites can be challenging.
“As I had one Med-Evac (helicopter) pilot tell me, he can’t read mile markers at 3,500 feet,” said Kittitas County Sheriff Bob McBride.
In the past, ground crews would give general directions, such as what ridge they were on, and then would wait until they heard the helicopter to set off colored-smoke grenades or flash hand-held mirrors to attract the helicopter’s attention.
“Sometimes they can be right on top of the ridge, and you can hear them (over the radio), but you can’t see them,” said Mike Urakawa, traffic safety coordinator for the Yakima Valley Conference of Governments.
The county was chosen by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission for a pilot project to see how well the GPS units speeded up emergency medical evacuation by providing the helicopter pilots with precise latitude and longitude coordinates.
The units have been used in Kittitas County and others in the state before, but on a piecemeal basis. This is the first time, according to the safety commission, that all the emergency responders will be outfitted with the units.
The cost of the GPS units, estimated at about $180 to $200 each, is being paid for with a combination of federal grant money and contributions from Pemco and Safeco insurance companies and the Lynden Trucking Co.
A demonstration of the units was given Friday at Snoqualmie Summit Inn on Snoqualmie Pass, 25 miles east of Seattle.
The units were being distributed there and were expected to soon be put in use.
“We’re really excited about it. It’s a new technology for law enforcement,” McBride said.
The units were developed during the Cold War to track Russian submarines, relying on signals transmitted by the 24 satellites circling the Earth. Modern units require signals from just three satellites to triangulate its latitude and longitude within 100 meters.
That data can then be given by radio or cellular phone to helicopter crews, which feed the coordinates into on-board computers.
John Moffat, director of the traffic safety commission, said Kittitas County was chosen for the pilot project because its stretch of Interstate 90 is the longest stretch of interstate highway in the state.
“In the winter time, you lose a lot of reference points on the highway when the snowplows pile the drifts high on the sides of the roads. It much more of a problem here than on the West Side or down in Yakima,” Moffat said.
A second reason was the relatively small number of law enforcement officers based in Kittitas County, which would allow the $20,000 in grants to be stretched far enough to provide all officers and ambulances to be outfitted with the units.
Finding remote rural roads sometimes can be even more difficult. A combination of radio problems and confusion over location was blamed for a serious delay in a U.S. Army ambulance helicopter reaching an accident that critically injured a 7-year-old boy in the Wenas Valley last summer. The boy later died.
“This is just much, much more efficient,” said Brad Smith, assistant fire chief for Kittitas County, based in Ellensburg. “We’ve had response times from ambulances that took 20 or 30 minutes just to find the scene. … With these, you can give them coordinates and they’ll punch them into a computer and the helicopter will auto-pilot right to the scene.”