Mesa County Search and Rescue Locates Missing Hikers with goTenna Pro X + ATAK
The Mesa County Search and Rescue Ground Team conducts rescue operations in support of Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado. With an average of 60 search and rescue missions per year, this highly-skilled group of 40 volunteers is familiar with the rugged and mountainous terrain in Mesa and neighboring counties. Even still, it’s incredibly difficult for field teams to give frequent and accurate reports of their locations and search progress during a mission. From central command posts and mountain ridge tops, teams have limited connectivity, which quickly diminishes as they venture further into ravines and drainage basins. Rescuers utilize traditional voice radios for communications and even in good conditions, the process of reading their Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) to command units who then hand-plot their location coordinates on a map ends up clogging precious channel traffic. When minutes can be the difference between life and death for those in need of rescue, teams can’t afford to be out of touch with command for long.
The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s (DFPC) Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting (CoE) introduced goTenna Pro X mesh networking radio devices to Mesa County, after several successful wildland fire responses with their similarly remote helitack and hand ground crews. goTenna Pro X radio devices operate on user-selectable UHF/VHF frequencies with up to 5 watts of power output. But most notably, the pocket-sized devices pair via Bluetooth to Android devices and the mobile app ATAK, extending its critical mapping and messaging capabilities in cellular-denied environments.
When a man and his 4-year-old daughter became lost overnight on a hiking trip in the Red Canyon area of the Colorado National Monument, four different Mesa County search teams were issued goTenna Pro X radios with ATAK-enabled Android smartphones and deployed into the field immediately. A goTenna Pro X and ATAK-enabled tablet were left with the operations chief at the command post. In dark and frigid night time conditions, the goTenna Pro X + ATAK pairing allowed teams to maintain near-constant contact with command, transmitting GPS coordinates in an otherwise cellular-denied region and sharing potential “footprints” from the lost hikers’ route.
“It is common for field teams to go 30 minutes or more without reporting a current location via voice radio since the reporting procedure is an inconvenience and distraction during an actual search. In the case of goTenna Pro X + ATAK pairing, [command] would receive automated position reports every 60 seconds.”
After Action Report Excerpt
With near real-time digital mapping, the command unit didn’t have to worry about hand-plotting search team locations and could instead focus their efforts towards increasing operational efficiency and safety. In one instance, command was able to tell a team to recheck their direction of travel as they had become disoriented in the dark and were traveling in the opposite direction. In another instance, they were able to anticipate team questions based on their current location and pre-determine the next direction of travel to progress the search effectively. Most importantly, voice radio traffic was reserved for critical communications, instead of distracting location updates.
With goTenna Pro X + ATAK, rescuers were able to locate the missing hikers in less than eight hours. While the mission was physically and mentally demanding, Mesa County rescuers had the assurance that command knew their current locations and could be of assistance at a moments notice.