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What a Difference A Decimal Point Makes In Searching For Someone

Author: Tom Combs

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

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On June 19, 2015 my brother had occasion to push the emergency response button on his SPOT GPS Messenger. At the time he was hiking in New Mexico in a very remote section of the Continental Divide Trail. Knowing my brother as an experienced back packer, I was pretty certain something serious had happened.  SPOT is an emergency locator system that broadcasts the latitude and longitude of the person in distress.  This signal is then relayed to GEOS Response, an organization that monitors these types of devices throughout the world. The staff at GEOS Response  did an excellent – I might say fabulous  job; and I was very impressed with the initial contact, and their almost hourly  follow-up contacts with me. Additionally the New Mexico State Police were very responsive.

Having been in law enforcement for 25 years I wasn’t overly worried. I knew it would take time to reach the coordinates provided and all that could be done was to sit tight. Things began to get a little disconcerting when after 24 hours, the New Mexico State Police were unable to locate my brother. To make a long story short, it turned out my brother was fine; however they had come across a hiker who was very dehydrated and was suffering a medical emergency. Luckily Bill Gloyd and a crew of BLM volunteers happened by about 12 hours after the initial SOS and were able to transport the individual in question to an ambulance. The big question was why couldn’t anyone find my brother?  Bill Gloyd, GEOS Response and I had a number of conversations regarding what went wrong and Mr. Gloyd, came up with the technical reason for the problem of why no one could find my brother. The actual coordinates of the event and the coordinates where EMS and the New Mexico State Police responded to where about 30 miles different as the crow flies. How could they be so far off course? The problem is – different mapping programs use different coordinate systems.

What is vital is to bring to the attention of SARS, EMS, and particularly Emergency Communications personal something that could have resulted in a tragic outcome had the situation been life threatening. This was one of the cases that the news media would have had a field day with – at the expense of some search a rescue, law enforcement or communications center personnel. 

Almost everyone has done the communications exercise where you pass on a group of instructions from one person to the next in a circle, and when it gets to the last person in the chain – it invariably has changed – sometimes significantly. In my brother’s case the rescue coordinates had to be passed on to a number of different law enforcement and rescue resources, (one state, at least two counties, and tribal police). It appears that somewhere between the coordinates that GEOS Response  provided and the coordinates that were given to the responding New Mexico State Police units someone switched from the original “decimal degrees” to “degrees, minutes, seconds.” When they input the information into their mapping program (from 35.52579, -107.38286 to 35 52.579, -107 38.286 it resulted in directing responding NWPS units to a position 30 miles away! So while the internet and all of its wondrous mapping software is great, it still cannot read our minds.

In speaking with GEOS Response, I suggested a couple of things, which are applicable to any search and rescue operation.

1. When contacting any agency or SARS group, with the location of an individual in need of help define a nearby geographic feature to use as a reference point to insure everyone is  literally “on the same page.”  In the case of my brother the nearby spring called Ojo de las Indios was about a quarter of a mile away; and would have made a good reference point. Be sure this reference point (mountain, stream, well know topographical point) is always, always mentioned in all radio, internet and phone communications. 

2. Whenever contacting an agency very clearly specify the coordinate measurement system you are using and tell the agency that depending on the mapping system they use this coordinate could change. Depending on the mapping expertise of who they are speaking to, this may or may not help. Also indicate what specific program  or physical map you are using.

Whenever complex information is passed on to another group, agency or multiple agencies the possibility of confusion increases. NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because a Lockheed Martin engineering team used English units of measurement while the agency's team used the more conventional metric system for a key spacecraft operation.* In today’s world of ever more sophisticated tools for dispatch and rescue personnel it is important to also have the back-up approach at times.

Tom Combs is a retired law enforcement officer with 25 years of service.

* CNN Article Metric mishap caused loss of NASA orbiter, September 30, 1999



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