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GPS to rescue in accidents

When an 18-year-old woman was injured in a snowmobiling accident in the wooded hills in northeast Washington, the first emergency workers on the scene lighted flares to guide the medical helicopter in through the fog and snow. Next time, they will use a high-tech Global Positioning System unit.

The size of a walkie-talkie, a GPS unit uses satellite signals to calculate the precise latitude and longitude of a location. Forty-eight agencies in rural North Idaho and Eastern Washington will receive GPS units to help guide medical helicopters to trauma victims. Rugged terrain and poor radio reception in rural areas can lengthen response times when every minute counts. The units, 150 of them, were purchased by Northwest MedStar, which flies medical helicopters and airplanes in the region. Money for the units came from a $16,000 grant from Foundation Northwest. Some agencies will get multiple GPS units so several emergency vehicles can be equipped.

At the accident scene, the handheld units will receive low-power radio signals from satellites circling the Earth and triangulate a location in latitude and longitude. The emergency workers will give the coordinates to a dispatcher, who will relay them to a pilot in a Northwest MedStar helicopter. The pilot will enter the numbers into a cockpit computer, which will calculate a heading and a distance.

Idaho´s Northern Lakes Fire Protection District serves Hayden and Rathdrum. The agency will receive eight GPS units, said Bill Deruyter, a firefighter and paramedic for the district. The usefulness of GPS units extends beyond wilderness accidents. Carleen Vanderostyne, a firefighter for Newman Lake Fire District, remembers a 10- to 15-minute delay while workers tried to direct a helicopter to a home where a heart attack victim waited for help. The home was on a hillside near the lake, and the helicopter crew could not see the lights of the firetruck.

Fortunately, the patient survived despite the delay, she said. The GPS units will go to agencies in the following Idaho counties: Benewah, Bonner, Boundary, Clearwater, Idaho, Kootenai, Latah, Lewis, Nez Perce, and Shoshone. Rural areas make use of modern technology to help improve emergency response times.