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Asia Pacific / News / Public Safety / Geospatial

Streamlining search and rescue operations with GIS

The increasing popularity of hiking has seen a worrying rise in search and rescue missions as inexperienced walkers go missing in Australia’s often harsh bushland.


According to police statistics, about 130 bushwalkers go missing each year in New South Wales alone, with similar numbers in other states.

While the vast majority of searches are successful, they are time intensive and costly particularly for state emergency services volunteers who rush in to help under extreme conditions.

Paul Doherty, public safety technology specialist at Esri and a former US law enforcement ranger, said GIS technology employed extensively by first responders during the Hurricane Sandy and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake can also help local authorities locate missing hikers in the Australian bush.

“One of the challenges emergency responders face is volunteers who actually do the searching typically don’t have access to the software and training the professional agencies co-ordinating the mission usually have,” Doherty said.

“To address that issue, Esri has supported an international team of search and rescue (SAR) volunteers to develop a tool known as MapSAR – which emergency services groups worldwide are using to easily generate maps that depict specific aspects of the operation and show what is happening on the ground over time.”

Doherty explained that MapSAR can be used by anyone regardless of their experience with GIS technology.

“With this, users can easily generate, store and print assignment maps layered with specific information vital to an operation, such as vegetation types, tracks, paths, water sources and helicopter landing zones.”

Furthermore, users can instantly send maps that show where a person was last seen, or GPS tracks showing the movements of search teams to experts anywhere in the world who can assist in analysing how far the hiker may have walked or which direction they are most likely heading.

“Volunteers can also use their mobile devices to update these maps in real-time with new information that often comes to light during a search – such as which areas have been searched, any signs or tracks of the missing person or any hazards that may have been identified."

“This sort of information sharing and remote planning is vital during a rescue mission where every second counts,” he said.

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