Satellite Messenger Evaluation & Experimental Deployment

Satellite Messenger Project Overview


In the interest of improving communications for, and safety of, wildland firefighters, the Center of Excellence (CoE) is evaluating the use of satellite-based messenger devices by Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) firefighters and cooperators. These devices can enable firefighters to send messages and they also track the location of personnel without using cellular or conventional radio networks. To date, the primary users of these devices have been the civilian outdoor community; however, military and civil government agencies have begun experimenting with integrating these devices into their operations. Early results show that satellite messengers can be effective at supplementing existing radio and cellular communication networks.

Device Overview

Two types of devices are being evaluated by the CoE. The first is the lower-cost SPOT Gen3, which can send one-way messages over the Globalstar satellite network. Since SPOT Gen3’s have sending capability only, it is not possible to obtain delivery confirmations for successful messages. To increase the probability that messages are successfully delivered, the SPOT sends multiple copies of the same message.

 The SPOT Gen3 device can send the following types of messages:

  • An SOS message that triggers a search and rescue response
  • A “Help” message that delivers a preset distress message and the device's location to designated contacts
  • A customized message with preset content that is input into the SPOT website prior to a trip
  • A message stating that the device user is “OK,” which is sent to designated contacts
  • Tracking points sent at preset intervals that show the device’s current location

The second device that the CoE is evaluating is the DeLorme inReach. Two models of the inReach are being evaluated—the basic model and a premium model that includes GPS mapping and navigation. The inReach can send two-way messages over the Iridium satellite network, which provides delivery confirmations for successful messages. In addition, text messages can be sent to firefighters in the field.

 

The DeLorme InReach device can send the following types of messages

  • An SOS message that triggers a search and rescue response, though in this case the search and rescue coordination center can customize the response based on a text message conversation with the device user.
  • Preset or customized messages sent via a virtual keyboard, or the inReach device can pair with Apple or Android smartphones and allow users to control all features of the device, including text input through their smartphones.

  • Tracking information at preset intervals

The SPOT Gen3 device retails for $149.99, the DeLorme inReach base model (inReach SE) for $299.99, and the premium model (inReach Explorer) for $379.99. Satellite service subscriptions comprise a substantial portion of the cost of operating these devices, with cost primarily governed by how frequently tracking points can be sent by the device. Service for the SPOT device must be bought on an annual basis, while service for the DeLorme devices can be purchased on either an annual or a month-to-month basis. If the DeLorme devices are used for 8 months or less each year, the month-to-month plan will be the most cost-effective option.

Summary of Device and Service Costs:

 

SPOT (annual)

DeLorme Contract (annual)

DeLorme Month-to-Month (plus $24.95 annual fee)

Device Cost

$149.99

$299.99/$379.99

$299.99/$379.99

Base Option

  • $150
  • Location every 10 minutes
  • User must push tracking button every day
  • Predefined messages
  • $300 
  • Location every 10 minutes 
  • 40 texts/month
  • $34.95/month 
  • Location every 10 minutes 
  • 40 texts/month

Mid-Range Option

  • $200 
  • Location every 5 minutes
  • Predefined messages
  • $600
  • Location every 10 minutes
  • Unlimited texting
  • $64.95/month
  • Location every 10 minutes
  • Unlimited texting

Premium Option

  • $300
  • Location every 2.5 minutes
  • Predefined messages
  • $960
  • Location every 2 minutes
  • Unlimited texting
  • $99.95/month
  • Location every 2 minutes
  • Unlimited texting

The following chart represents the cost of buying and operating a device for two years, assuming that the DeLorme devices are on the month-to-month plan and are used for 6 months each year:

An enterprise plan is also available for the DeLorme devices. This plan charges for each byte of data used by the device rather than by the various texting and tracking features. As a result, a direct comparison to the consumer plans is difficult, but superior value may be found if usage is carefully monitored. Real-world testing of this plan is being conducted by the CoE to gain insight into its value.

Both the SPOT and DeLorme devices may be used by DFPC wildland fire personnel during fire assignments and remote project work. Using either device, personnel in need of emergency medical assistance or personnel lost in the wildland will be able to summon search and rescue assistance. Additionally, personnel will have the ability to send messages with other content to supervisors or incident commanders, though this functionality is limited with the SPOT device. Finally, the location of personnel can be tracked in near real-time using either the companion websites for the devices or using the Colorado Wildfire Information Management System (CO-WIMS).