GPS Receivers In Emergency Vehicles

David C. Delisio shows the value and efficiency of the GPS in saving time during emergency incidents.


The flight crew of a medevac helicopter has just received a request for a medevac resulting from a serious motor vehicle accident at the intersection of two major state highways. In less than five minutes, the helicopter is airborne with an estimated time of arrival of 12 minutes. Once aloft...


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The flight crew of a medevac helicopter has just received a request for a medevac resulting from a serious motor vehicle accident at the intersection of two major state highways. In less than five minutes, the helicopter is airborne with an estimated time of arrival of 12 minutes.

Once aloft, the crew programs the aircraft's navigation computer with the latitude and longitude coordinates of the landing zone fire apparatus' vehicle Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, passed via the dispatch center. The helicopter flies directly to the landing zone, a field near the accident scene. Within 25 minutes of the request, the patient is en route to a trauma center.

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Photo by Bill Green
GPS-equipped units are helping to cut response times.

That scenario already is a reality in some parts of the country. This article is intended to educate members of the fire and rescue service of the value of equipping emergency vehicles with GPS receivers so that whenever a rescue helicopter is needed, the aircraft will quickly and accurately find the landing zone or search location by using vehicle GPS-derived latitude and longitude coordinates.

A language barrier exists between helicopter flight crews and ground emergency response personnel. A flight crew is trained to locate accident scenes, landing zones or search areas by many means, including "dead reckoning," course and heading, roadmaps and charts, crew familiarity and electronic navigation. The most time-saving and most accurate method is navigation in terms of latitude and longitude derived from GPS. Ground personnel locate accident scenes and landing zones by geographic location and street address. It is impossible for the helicopter crew from 1,500 feet above the ground the aircraft's minimum cruise altitude due to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations and noise abatement rules to read a street address on a mailbox or building. When a flight crew interpolates from a roadmap, an error of one inch can put the aircraft more than 10 miles from the landing zone.

The following actual incident illustrates the language problem between flight crews and ground personnel.

My flight paramedic and I were dispatched to a daytime medevac in Howard County, MD. The patient, a deer hunter, had fallen out of a tree stand about 25 feet above the ground. He had sustained broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a punctured lung. The paramedic and I were unfamiliar with the landing zone. When we were about five minutes from the landing zone, we established radio communications with the landing zone fire apparatus personnel. The latitude and longitude coordinates derived from a roadmap put us within three miles of the landing zone.

As soon as the fire personnel saw the helicopter, they gave me directions to the landing zone. I noted the time when we flew over the roadmap-derived coordinates. It took us seven minutes time taken from the patient's "golden hour" to find the actual landing zone and touch down. It didn't help that the fire engine and ambulance were parked under trees in fall foliage. When you add seven minutes to the ground emergency response time, initial medical evaluation time, helicopter dispatch and flight times, flight paramedic's medical evaluation time and flight time to the trauma center, the "golden hour" can be exceeded easily.

Emergency vehicles equipped with GPS receivers let a helicopter crew and ground personnel speak the same language, resulting in the helicopter responding more quickly by flying directly to the landing zone.

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