Florida is pioneering the use GPS systems to track firefighters. The Florida Forest Service hopes to prevent a tragedy like the one in Arizona that took the lives of 19 firefighters. When an unexpected eruption of fire left the firefighters facing a wall of flames, supervisors only had a rough estimate of where they were. Two Florida rangers also died after being taken over by flames when the bulldozer one of them was operating got stuck on a stump. In that case, aerial crews couldn’t locate the men through the thick smoke.
The agency believes the GPS system will give firefighters, especially those who bulldoze fire lines, a way to virtually navigate wildfires. Sean Gallagher, manager of Orlando’s district, says, “It’s a tool in our toolbox to make sure we know where our firefighters are to the best of our ability.”
Nearly every one of the 400 bulldozers and fire engines used by the Florida Forest Service will be equipped with radio transmitters and GPS receivers, and software will be installed on supervisors’ laptops. The system is costing about $2 million dollars, but the long-term expense is minimal since it doesn’t rely on cell phones or internet.
Even though the fire itself isn’t outlined on the laptops, supervisors are learning how to use the GPS data in combination with their tactical knowledge of firefighting, especially when using bulldozers, and will know where to send a water drop if crews are in trouble.
John Kern, a deputy chief of field operations, said, “If one of our guys calls in, ‘I’m stuck and about to be burned over’ we’ll know where to go.”