GPS technology saves property owners money and makes work easier for emergency responders in the Ozark foothills.
University of Missouri Extension natural resources engineer Frank Wideman has taught responders to use GPS technology to provide faster emergency service in Iron and Madison counties.
Many rural Missouri fire departments rely on a small cadre of volunteers. In addition to fighting fires, volunteers often make up search and rescue teams.
After training by Wideman, a Fredericktown Boy Scout troop worked side by side with the town’s 20 volunteer firefighters to locate and map nearly 300 fire hydrants. The GPS information can be sent to firefighters electronically when they are dispatched.
“It’s tough for volunteer firefighters to know where all those fire hydrants are,” Wideman said. “This map helps them to do that.”
Shorter response times to fires mean lower Insurance Service Office (ISO) ratings for property owners. Risk experts assign ISO ratings from 1 to 10 for areas based on the quality of fire protection services. Lower ISOs mean smaller insurance premiums for property owners.
Wideman said Fredericktown’s ISO rating decreased by 3 points after the GPS system began. This means about a 15 percent reduction in annual premium costs for residential and commercial property owners. That’s significant, he said, because it gives property owners money to spend on other things in the community.
When there is a major fire or emergency, small fire departments rely on mutual aid assistance from outside firefighters unfamiliar with the town. In catastrophic events like the Joplin tornado, street signs and other landmarks may be destroyed and GPS data becomes even more critical.
Fredericktown fire Chief John Clark said the 20 volunteer firefighters in the town of 3,985 range in age from 20 to 82. They all have other jobs and are dispatched from their homes or workplaces.
The GPS system shaves minutes off critical response time by providing firefighters with hydrant information immediately so they don’t have to search through paper files or stop to ask people in the neighborhood.
It’s important to know where a hydrant is to decide how many feet of hose is needed, what type of connector is needed and what the pumping capability is, Clark said.
Information gathered by Boy Scouts also includes the manufacturer and installation date of each hydrant. This helps officials make maintenance and replacement decisions.
The technology helps search and rescue teams find lost or stranded hikers, campers and boaters visiting Madison County. Many of Mark Twain National Forest’s steep canyon trails along the St. Francis River are unlit and accessible only by foot.
Cherokee Pass Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bill Starkey said cellphones send GPS signals to emergency dispatch so that teams can locate people through grid systems despite rugged terrain and darkness.
Training and assistance offered through MU Extension has helped his department cut search and rescue time by 75 percent, he said.
Firefighters look forward to pending upgrades that will automatically send additional information to firefighters’ smartphones. The system also tracks the number and location of firefighters responding to an emergency.