Technology In Search and Rescue

Using technology during a SAR incident can make limited resources more efficient and aid in accountability and documentation of the incident.  The hope of this column is to provide a place for you to learn about effective utilization of technology during a SAR incident.  With this being the first of these columns, I will discuss a few of the more common pieces of tech that are commonly used during SAR incidents that relate to incident mapping. A vital component of a successful SAR operation is that command needs to be able to have a clear picture of the tasks that are ready to be assigned, tasks that are currently in progress, and tasks that have already been completed.  Having a mapping system that is easy to use is a very important part of maintaining this awareness.  A mapping system that has been growing in popularity among the SAR community nationwide is SARTopo.  SARTopo is a web-based system that is a version of CalTopo with extra SAR specific enhancements included.  It includes a variety of map layers and map overlays.  Most of the developers of SARTopo are SAR responders themselves, so they tend to be responsive to the needs of the SAR community.  The company behind SARTopo/CalTopo (CalTopo, LLC) provides SAR and other emergency responders a significant discount on their paid plans, but also have the option of using SARTopo completely free.  All you have to do is go to and you can start creating maps.  If you would like to save your maps, you will need to login and create a free account.  SARTopo uses your existing Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, or Apple account.  Please note that SARTopo is not getting access to your login credentials but will redirect to your selected provider and receive back an authentication token once you have successfully logged in.  The basic free account will allow you to do most of the functions you might need during a SAR incident, but if you want to be able to save additional maps to your account, gain additional options for printing maps larger than letter size, and gain access to some additional map layers and customizations then you will want to get an upgraded account.  SAR responders are able to get a free upgraded account as well by contacting the company for a discount code.  They may request proof that you are an emergency responder before issuing the discount code.  Both of these options only allow access to the on-line version.  If you would like access to the offline version as well then you will have to either purchase an individual “Desktop” subscription which is currently $50/year with the SAR discount or sign-up for a team account.  Team accounts are now available in three tiers:  up to 5 users, up to 25 users, and up to 100 users.  The 5 user team account is $250/year and does not offer a discount for volunteer SAR responders.  The 25 user team account is $500/year or $250/year with the volunteer SAR discount.  The 100 user team account is $1000/year or $500/year with the volunteer SAR discount.  The offline desktop version is Java based and you will need to download the map layers you wish to use offline.  All the currently available map layers for the state of Arkansas are around 250GB with some additional layers, including the new Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) layer from the USFS and BLM, are scheduled to be available for offline use soon.  For more information about the individual plans available to the public visit  For information on the discounted first responder plan options you can visit:  or for information about team accounts you can visit I plan to discuss how to use SARTopo in future columns and will also be teaching some classes on using SARTopo throughout the coming year.  There is also a CalTopo/SARTopo smartphone app currently in development for both Android and Apple that is available to the public as a beta version.  It is supposed to be close to being ready for its official release.  I will discuss the SARTopo app in more detail in a future column after it has been officially released.  As you can see SARTopo has a number of options for a SAR team to choose from to fit their needs and budget. Another extremely valuable piece of technology that is often underutilized is the handheld GPS receiver.  When combined with a mapping system such as SARTopo it becomes a very valuable asset to SAR management.  It allows the management team to see where the teams actually went compared to their assigned area and can allow the field teams to more clearly see where their assigned area is while in the field faster and more accurately than using just paper maps and compass alone.  It is important to remember though that SAR responders must be proficient with all navigational tools whether it be a GPS, paper map and compass, or even celestial or natural navigational skills.  Currently I would recommend either the Garmin GPSMap 64s or 64st.  If you have the budget or can find a good sale on the Garmin GPSMap 64sx, then it would be the preferred model to get.  I would avoid any of the models that use touch screens since they do not seem to work very well when wearing gloves or during hot, cold, or wet weather which we all know is rather common during SAR incidents.  If you get one of the models without preloaded topo maps or if you want additional map options then you can often get free maps to load onto your GPS receiver from websites such as  I am planning on covering topics such as how to use some of the common Garmin GPS receiver models during a SAR incident and how to load maps, firmware updates, download track and waypoint data, etc in future columns.  Smartphones are another piece of technology often seen during a SAR incident.  Smartphones have a number of potential positive uses as well as many negatives.  I hope to go over a whole spectrum of positive and negatives in a future column but for now will just touch on a few points to think about as related to mapping.  Many people, both SAR responders and the general public, are starting to try to use their smartphone for all their navigation and mapping needs.  They are relatively light, have larger screens than other devices, and we typically always have them with us anyways so it seems natural to use them for our outdoor mapping and navigation needs.  However, it should be considered that features that work fine when using a smartphone to navigate to a location on roads in a vehicle such as the snapping your location on the nearest road don’t work very well in wilderness areas and can even lead you misinterpreting your location.   Smartphones GPS receivers are not as sensitive as those in dedicated GPS receivers so they often depend on A-GPS to help them get and keep a GPS fix as well as make it more accurate.  A-GPS is where the phone uses cell towers to help triangulate it’s position but in weak signal areas this ability doesn’t work very well and can even lead to inaccurate position reports.  The battery saving features of many phones can also have a negative effect on its ability to give accurate position reports when the prediction algorithms and other “shortcuts” commonly used are not very effective.  Since smartphone GPS receivers are not as sensitive they are also much more likely to lose their GPS fix due to vegetation or terrain.  Downloading tracks, waypoints, and other data from many smartphone apps requires sending an email to the recipient which in the worst case doesn’t work at all due to lack of an Internet connection either on the smartphone itself or with in command.  In the best case where both the smartphone and command have Internet and email access, the process is still takes much longer to complete than simply hooking the device to command’s computer and downloading the information.  Smartphones can be a useful tool in your navigation and mapping toolbox as long as you understand the strengths and weaknesses they can provide.  Currently, I tend to use a dedicated GPS receiver as my primary GPS attached to my radio harness and my phone with an extra battery pack and a hard case inside a pouch on my pack.  Most waypoints and in the field changes are done on my dedicated GPS receiver while the CalTopo/SARTopo beta app on my phone is only recording my track directly to the SARTopo map in command in near real-time assuming I have sufficient cell service.  Major waypoints that command needs to know immediately may also get marked on the phone app.  Smartphone apps for things such as weather updates can be very useful while in the field but again you often need to have proper training and situational awareness to take full advantage of the enhancements offered by the apps.  So basically, smartphones can be a useful tool to enhance or backup other tools and skills but in most cases probably should not be used as a complete replacement for specially tools or training.   These are just a few common pieces of technology used during a modern SAR incident.  Learning how to effectively utilize whatever technology you have available can greatly enhance your response efficiency, accountability, and documentation but as with all things you must have some degree of knowledge on how to use it properly to get the most use out of it.  You don’t want to just blindly use the latest new gadget without knowing how to use it properly or how it can enhance your incident operations.  Technology is also not a replacement for having a proper foundation in skills and training.  Technology can be a powerful force multiplier in the hands of properly trained individuals but can be disastrous if it is attempted to be used in place of proper training.  I hope you found this introductory column useful and I plan to delve much deeper into individual topics in future columns.