Monday, December 2, 2013

GPS for SAR Resources

Now what?
Lately, I have received many requests for GPS Training, Tips, and Tricks for Wildland Search and Rescue. 

Lorri Peltz-Lewis (USFS), Kathy Hansen (NPS), George Durkee (NPS), Tim Smith (NPS), Kevin Davis (NPS), Edan Cain (Esri), Bernie Szukalksi (Esri), Ian Batley (Mapping and Planning Support Team - MAPS), the Open Street Map Team, Don Ferguson (IGT4SAR) and Jon Pedder & Arnold Gaffrey (Sierra Madre SAR) have all pitched in and shared their ideas. So I thought I would compile these here. Thank you all for your comments!


There are many options, but I thought I'd list the ones that were most recently discussed. Most of the SAR Teams I have worked with use Garmin GPS - but the bottom line is any GPS Receiver / smartphone should be able to create gpx files which are inter-operable with the solutions discussed here as well as proprietary software like Terrain Nav Pro, Maptech, etc.
  • DNR Garmin  is free and has been used by Wildland Fire GISS for many years. It has a small learning curve but allows for direct connect to GPS and directly imports / exports to ArcMap. This is still the best option, in my opinion. Here is a short video by George Durke. 

  • GPS Babel is also free and does everything DNR Garmin does and more... steeper learning curve for sure
  • Garmin Basecamp free and easier to use than most other GUI I have seen. Obviously only works to connect with Garmin units. This may be the best solution when you want to split GPS / GIS tasks and are limited on GIS trained staff.
  • ArcGIS Explorer - Edan built this tool a long time ago and ArcGIS Explorer has native GPS support in it's final release AGX 2500.
  • [Updated] Open Street Map is another way to map your GPS tracks and also contribute to basemaps that work across platforms, including ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Desktop. Download the ArcGIS Add-in to download vector data and work disconnected with this resource: ArcGIS Editor for OSM.
  • [Updated] EasyGPS I have not used this yet but it looks promising and has good reviews from our 'mates down under. The website says "EasyGPS is the fast and easy way to upload and download waypoints, routes, and tracks between your Windows computer and your Garmin, Magellan, or Lowrance GPS. EasyGPS lists all of your waypoints on the left side of the screen, and shows a plot of your GPS data on the right. Use EasyGPS to back up and organize your GPS data, print maps, or load new waypoints onto your GPS for your next hike or geocaching adventure. EasyGPS works with every popular handheld GPS receiver, and it is 100% FREE!"
  • ArcGIS Online this is actually very easy to use but NOT to be used for long term GPS management and only works with an internet connection. If you are just looking for a quick GPS import or to make a mash-up with your tracks. Below is an interactive map with some of my favorite running routes.

Data Management

The MapSAR team has adapted many GPS data management techniques from the National Wildfire GIS Standard Operating Procedures - but we are open to any tips and tricks you all might have as well.
  • Using GIS in WiSAR text discusses GPS data management in detail in Chapter 6: Integrating GPS and Current Technologies into SAR Operations 
  • Folder structure used by George Durkee - this has not been adopted as a standard but might be helpful starting point. From George "I've created a stripped down version of the MapSAR folder structure by removing the MapSAR for ArcGIS 10 files. This keeps a logical folder structure along with suggested naming conventions that Paul developed. It also includes the Excel file 2013_SAR_GIS_FILE_NAMER.xlsx Vanessa did. This customizes and standardizes file and folder naming for anything you need on a SAR. If you're not using MapSAR, the folder structure is pretty darned good for organizing not only your SAR files, but gives you an idea of how to organize all your geospatial files."
  • MapSAR can connect to a GPS directly if tracks are stored on an SD card, very easy to use with Edan Cain's GPS Add-in that comes with MapSAR. Either way - once GPX files are accessible, this tool is the best way to get your data into a geodatabase. Watch video here. To export to GPS tracks - you CAN export to .kml and use software that allows .kml to the GPS receiver.
  • IGT4SAR similar to MapSAR, but specific to IGT4SAR is the ability to determine a theoretical Probability of Detection from the GPS track. This provides a verification for the estimate of POD provided by the teams. IGT4SAR allows for native feature to .gpx. See comments from Don below.
  • Feature to GPX Add-In (by Kevin Hibma) for ArcMap can be installed, but you need to convert polygons to line first . There is an open ArcGIS for Ideas open on the topic and you can go here to vote for it's implementation. 

Training and Cheat Sheets

Since so much of what we are trying to do in SAR has already been done by the fire service - Kathy and Lorri have forwarded some more helpful resources for your team.

  • GPS Training from NWCG The class that Kathie Hansen developed and continues to maintain. 
  • GPS Pocket Cards have tip sheets for the following Garmins:  MAP62, 60CS, 76CS, 76S, Montana, and Oregon  If you have a Rhino it is very similar to the 62
  • GPS for Download Tag George says "This form is intended for use as SAR teams turn in their GPS. You fill out the form of the team, then put it and their GPS in a plastic bag for later download and keeping track of their GPS. The team can either be debriefed or go get food. Also attached is WAYPOINT FORM_Draft2.pdf. This is for field teams to fill out when they establish a waypoint (clue, LZ etc.) etc. on their GPS. Turned in on debriefing, it allows the GIS person to know what the Wapoints are they download."
No GPS? No dinner!

Well - this is a start. Please send more resources to the SARGIS Discussion Group and/or make comments below. 


  1. Hey all...

    in addition to the material listed in Paul's post, the IGT4SAR template offers some additional capabilities for utilizing GPS units for SAR. First, I highly recommend you not only download tracks from GPS units but you also upload assigned search areas onto the GPS units prior to a team going into the field. We have had a lot of experience with teams searching in the wrong place compared to their assigned area. Although their recorded tracks can show you where they search, having them search in the wrong area could impact any search tactics you may be employing. For example, you may have assigned an air scent K9 to search an area and if a ground team is inadvertently walking around in the same area it could cause a conflict. Of course uploading assigned areas to the GPS is possible if you are using IGT4SAR or not.

    Specific to IGT4SAR is the ability to determine a theoretical Probability of Detection from the GPS track. This calculation is based on random search theory presented by Koopman but takes advantage of the power of GIS. Using this tool, teams are given credit not only for searching their assigned areas but also if they wonder into any other areas. This provides a verification for the estimate of POD provided by the teams. We have seen in sweep width experiments that both trained and untrained searches grossly over-estimate their POD. The ability to calculate a POD from the GPS tracks is a realty check and provides more useful data to the management team.

    I will try to get a video up soon discussing these capabilities, but in the meantime you can get more info on IGT4SAR from here:


  2. Thanks Don - I look forward to a blog post in the near future? I think people will want a run down of the POD tools : )

  3. Hi Paul, I am a little surprised you didn't mention EasyGPS because it really is an easy tool to use. There are two versions but I have only ever used the free one and it has certainly done everything I needed. Connects to every GPS and phone I have tried and can even locate non-gps photos (based on time).

    1. Thanks Ian - I've added your comments above. When are we going to start adding some more dots to the SARGIS Membership map (below)?

  4. I am wondering why the GPS for download card has choices for datums listed? At the point you are handing over a GPS unit to be downloaded we (the GIS/gps technician) knows the native GPS datum (wga84) and should know what they are using in the GIS so what are they getting from the card? It seems like it is just adding to the general confusion/mystery that exists around GIS/gps technology. But beyond that I love the idea of a pre- printed card to help the "data transfer"

  5. AW - I agree, we need to demystify the GPS misconceptions. It is my understanding that all GPS Receiver record coordinates in WGS1984 GCS (no projection). The GPS receiver can display different coordinates for the user's benefit, but it is doing so in a "heads up" way.

    I do not know who originally created this pre-printed card - but I think they may have had to account for non-GIS software being used for data transfer. Some GPS download software will let you collect data in various projections, which is what causes a lot of confusion. I have helped on several mutual aid incidents where there was a mixup between NAD27 and NAD83 downloads. When I arrive on scene with ArcMap it takes hours to figure out what went wrong with their gpx files (or worse if they are only saved as a proprietary format), especially if this was not made clear in the IAP from day one.

    Thanks for raising the issue and I will cross-post on the SARGIS list serv.

  6. good technology which is very use full to every one in future but every one should create awareness about gps