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Nova Scotia Ground Search and Rescue embraces technology in search efforts

Nova Scotia Emergency Management Office (EMO) Emergency Planning Officer, Steve Mills, brings a wide range of knowledge to his current position. Originally from Liverpool, Mills grew up in Bridgewater and went on to have an approximately 31 year career with the RCMP. The now-retired RCMP Staff Sergeant has a consulting and advising role with EMO and also works as a Nova Scotia Ground Search and Rescue Coordinator. Mills has witnessed an evolution within GSAR’s use of technology over recent years. Since 2008, PRAXES has provided Search Management and Record Tracking (SMART) software by Pii Software to GSAR. Mills took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of our questions on the difference the software makes in search and rescue efforts.

Can you describe what your position with EMO entails and how you work with PRAXES and SMART software?

There are four Emergency Planning Officers in the province and we work with municipalities on their emergency management plans and are involved in emergency management planning on a municipal, provincial and federal level. Additionally, I work as the Ground Search and Rescue Coordinator for Nova Scotia and part of that is working with the SMART Software provided by PRAXES. We started working with this software in approximately 2008 and our role is to help secure financing from National Search and Rescue Secretariat, which is federal funding for the SAR New Initiative Fund. That was the first project and then we went back a couple years later to request further funding to adapt the fund to the Incident Command System, which was recently completed this past July. We help secure funding and I’ve also been on the technical committee since the beginning. We also support our municipalities through helping them with training and any expertise that they require.

Incident Command System is beginning to be used across Canada for Ground Search and Rescue operations and PRAXES is now using ICS forms. Can you tell us about ICS and how this system works?

Incident Command System has been around for some time in the United States and it came to Canada in the early 2000s. Through Parks Canada it has been used for wildfire support and now ICS has been accepted by almost all first-responder agencies across the country. It’s proliferating across Canada and GSAR has been using ICS for many years. When it first emerged, there was a time period of getting it implemented but we’re pretty much there now. ICS creates a uniformed command structure that everyone can use and follow the same terminology wherever you are located. Anyone who’s trained in ICS can go anywhere that it’s used and feel comfortable in their knowledge with the system.

How have the methods of Ground Search and Rescue technology evolved over the years? Are the current methods used efficient?

There’s been a lot of changes in the past ten years including GPS technology, real-time tracking and of course, SMART software. The bottom line goal of all the SAR technology is to assist with finding a lost person in the most efficient way possible. It can take time to get people on-board with new technology however it’s certainly faster to find someone with GPS support as opposed to a compass and map.

How has using SMART Software impacted GSAR’s operations methods?

The goal behind using software is to make a search go faster and more efficiently and ultimately to find the lost person as quickly and safely as possible. What SMART has done, is allowed us to go from a paper-based, clunky, system of tasking people, checking people in and keeping track of volunteers to an electronic system. Now, we can check people in very quickly by use of a scanner. Since their details are already within a program, they pop-up and that information is sent electronically to the search manager and that person knows right away who’s on-site and what skills they have instead of having to ask. There’s a huge time savings there. Being able to task people quickly by simply hitting a button and organizing a structure so that you can create teams and put people together who have complementary skill sets and track the equipment they’re using. It is all-around a huge time saver and in addition to that it creates a permanent record of what happened during the search which we didn’t have in the past.

How does the SMART Software support your work specifically?

Prior to using SMART, we didn’t have this and a lot of information wasn’t documented and was lost. Before 2008/ 2009, it was predominantly a paper-based system. From my perspective, using SMART enables us to tell the ground searcher’s story including how many hours they put in and track their time and that way we can recount their story when seeking funding. We can share details on how much time they’ve put in and what it takes to get teams prepared.

How do do you see GSAR’s use of technology evolving?

Technology continues to make a positive impact. In addition to SMART and Real Time Tracking we also have Project Lifesaver, which is radio transmitter technology that may be used to find people who have Alzheimer’s or Autistic children, for example, who may be prone to wandering. They wear a transmitter and there’s a tracking device that the ground searcher has at their disposal so that they can pick up the signs of that person if they’ve wandered off. Project Lifesaver is making an impact across the world.

SMART works well for us and effectively does what we want it to do. In the future, I think that the software we use will find its way to every GSAR team across the country and the use of drones is also coming into the forefront. Drones work with infra-red and heat seeking technology and they are a very useful tool and I think you will see a lot more drone usage in search efforts in years to come. The last ten years have been full of so many advances in technology and it’s a fast moving, exciting world – so it’s hard for me to predict what will come next. We’re constantly trying to improve on the software and we’ve been heavily involved in always tweaking and continuing to make the system better than ever.

EMO Emergency Planning Officer, Steve Mills


PRAXES Emergency Specialists Inc.

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