The canyons and mountains that attract visitors to Rim Country are also where most rescues occur and where critical communication breaks down.
While there are several cellphone towers in the area, communication is nearly nonexistent in most locations outside of town, thanks to the hills and valleys.
It is a problem all too familiar for rescuers and law enforcement.
And getting a message from the field to command can mean life or death.
Tonto Rim Search and Rescue has struggled for years to improve communication among field volunteers, but has had limited success.
Thanks to the Gila County Board of Supervisors, that may all change with the purchase of a new system.
Bill Pitterle, TRSAR commander, explains he has been trying to solve “the last mile” communications issue for some time.
“It is always the “last mile,” or in some cases the last several miles where communication becomes difficult or non-existent, and this is where it becomes most critical,” he wrote. “SAR members may come across critical information that could save significant time on a mission, or make contact with a search subject who may need medical attention or immediate extraction, with no way to communicate back to the command center.”
TRSAR frequently operates in locations with minimal cell phone service and minimal radio capability.
“Radios are fairly line of sight, and in the deep canyons of Gila County we can be out of communications for significant periods of time,” he said. “We have had missions where critical information was not available in a timely manner and led to complications in executing a SAR mission. We have been looking for ways to close this communications gap, and have tried a number of technologies, including satellite communicators and satellite phones.”
Pitterle discovered a technology that addresses a number of these gaps. The technology uses a goTenna Pro device to create an extended “mesh network” in remote locations.
The goTenna Pro is a small 5 watt radio transmitter/receiver that transmits short packets of data and weighs 3.5 ounces. It interfaces with a cell phone for a user interface, GPS and maps. It transmits location information to other goTenna Pro devices on its network. Multiple goTenna devices in an area creates a mesh network between all the devices. A goTenna device can transmit up to six hops across multiple goTenna devices. This communication is independent of cell phone service and does not require cell phone service.
“What this tool provides is location information of all devices (squad members) updated to all devices at configured intervals, as well as the ability to communicate with all members via text messages.”
The 5 watt radios can transmit between two to five miles. Transmission of up to six hops can multiply the distance covered. Multiple devices in a search area can broaden the range of communications to many miles. Special Forces, some Border Patrol units and several search and rescue units around the country use the system.
“We think this system has a number of advantages over other systems and could make a big difference in many of the SAR missions we are involved in,” he said.
County Supervisor Steve Christiansen was so impressed with the potential of the system to save lives and time on SAR missions that he agreed to fund the $26,000 purchase of the system.