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Transforming Search and Rescue efforts in Prince Edward Island

When a person is lost, their life could be in jeopardy. Modern web-based geographic information system (GIS) tools can help improve the likelihood of finding them quickly.  

Prince Edward Island Ground Search and Rescue (PEI GSAR) is a volunteer-based, non-profit, charitable organization based in Charlottetown. Serving the entire province of PEI, its mandate is to search for and rescue individuals who are lost or injured. To fulfill this mandate, volunteers train multiple times a year to maintain skills in navigation, survival, first aid, search techniques, search management, clue identification, tracking and more.  

Like governments and other emergency service organizations, the public expects PEI GSAR to use the latest tools to solve modern-day emergencies.  

“Search and rescue is very much a geographic problem; the lost person is somewhere on the landscape and needs to be found,” says Frances Gertsch, search manager for PEI GSAR. “Terrain, weather, time of day and distance can challenge the ability of ground search and rescue teams to solve the search problems they face. We wanted to use modern tools like smartphones, GIS and geolocation tracking to help us search better.”  

Expanding mapping capabilities from the desktop to the web 
PEI GSAR has used ArcGIS as a search tool for several years – including the desktop tool built by the SAR community known as MapSAR. In 2019, the Canadian Search and Rescue New Initiatives Fund (SAR NIF) supported PEI GSAR in a project aimed at 1) customizing MapSAR and 2) exploring the integration of smartphones with advanced, web-based GIS technologies available with ArcGIS Online. The three-year project involved partnering with Esri Canada as well as stakeholder support from Parks Canada, RCMP and PEI Emergency Measures Organization (PEI EMO). 

Training SAR App

The ArcGIS Online web-based system gives PEI GSAR the ability to: 

  • Initiate the search planning process online, significantly reducing the time between the 911 call and getting search teams deployed; 

  • Improve the collection and communication of clue information (such as photos or videos of footprints) using mobile devices and ArcGIS Online; 

  • Improve dissemination of information between Incident Command and search teams through access to shared web-based geographic information; 

  • Enhance the communication of search planning and progress to all jurisdictions involved in the incident; and 

  • Collate and store all digital search information in a secure environment. 

The project began by training PEI GSAR members in ArcGIS Pro and ArcGIS Online. Esri Canada conducted a workshop to help PEI GSAR members set up and configure ArcGIS Pro on their desktop and mobile devices, as well as modify the existing MapSAR plug-in software. 

Training for both online publishing and mobile applications became challenging in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the volunteers’ spirit and enthusiasm kept the project running as they conducted modified training sessions and mock searches. From these sessions, the team worked closely with Esri Canada to learn what worked and what needed improvement. These insights helped PEI GSAR and Esri Canada modify MapSAR for optimal performance in both desktop and online environments.  

“Moving to ArcGIS Pro and ArcGIS Online makes it easy to get pertinent data published to our ArcGIS Online account in a timely manner,” says Mary Lynn McCourt, a Situation Unit member. “For example, in one of our recent searches, we were in a coastal area which contained many shellfish leases. These water areas have a high concentration of marker buoys which can affect our ability to navigate safely. A call to the Department of Fisheries made us aware of a layer of information they had published to ArcGIS Online, which mapped the location of all such leases. This was valuable information not only to our navigation but in considering the possibility of the missing person being caught on lease buoys after falling from their watercraft.” 

Making ground searches more effective through web and mobile applications 

The Search Management team now uses ArcGIS Online to begin their planning process.  

“ArcGIS Online is essentially our basemap. It provides the imagery, which helps us understand the features that are out there, and that helps us make better planning decisions,” notes Gertsch. 

Using ArcGIS Online maps combined with local GIS data, provides the Search Management team with an understanding of the area’s topography and helps them make decisions about where to send teams based on factors such as probability, distance travelled and land features. 

“Field Maps allows our searchers to view their tasks so they can see the area that we've drawn to say, ‘we want you to search this area in a certain patter,” continues Gertsch. 

ArcGIS Field Maps enables searchers to collect clues and information that are geolocated. This information is sent back in real time to the Command Post without errors. “Using this kind of technology allows us to really make sure we're getting accurate results from teams in the field much more quickly than we could when it was all through radio transmission,” says Gertsch. Previously, searchers had to radio-in the coordinates of where they found a clue and send photos of the clue via text or email. 

“The ability for the Search Management team to quickly view where searchers have completed taskings and where relevant clue information has been identified…all of that information is working together to solve the search problem,” notes Gertsch. “The more information we have in real time, the better off we’ll be, the better decisions we’ll be able to make. And all that means we'll be able to search and find our subjects more quickly.” 

The primary objectives of improving both task assignment and clue collection have been very successful. In addition to this, PEI GSAR President George Williams has spent time investigating the other capabilities of the Field Maps app. The built-in navigation tools are useful, especially with the ability to add an up-to-date background image. With the basemap imagery as background, the search team can make on-the-spot decisions on best navigation routes to follow. This gives searchers more meaningful context than a GPS alone.  

PEI GSAR hopes to include Field Maps’ tracking capabilities to the list of successes. At present, tracking takes place through the team’s radio analogue system. Migration to Field Maps has provided some challenges as can be expected with all software. The nature of moving toward an online system includes the need to keep up to date on all software changes and upgrades.  This can be challenging in any volunteer-based organization, but with Esri support and continuous training, PEI GSAR will address the issues. 

PEI Ground Search and Rescue gratefully acknowledges the financial support of Public Safety Canada to realize this project. For questions regarding the project, please contact PEI GSAR President George Williams ( 

Watch this video to learn more about PEI GSAR’s use of GIS for search and rescue. 

Explore how Esri’s ArcGIS technology can support your field operations. Visit  

About the Author

David Hamilton is the Public Safety Industry Manager for Esri Canada. His efforts are focused on advising customers how to use GIS technology to improve all areas of public safety, specifically (NG)9-1-1, law enforcement, fire services, emergency medical services, emergency management, and search and rescue. Prior to joining Esri Canada in 2010, David managed the GIS for E-Comm 9-1-1 in Vancouver, and worked for the RCMP at the Integrated Security Unit for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games where he managed their Common Operating Picture. Being active has been a major part of David’s personal life; soccer, track & field, skiing, cycling, hiking and now kayaking are all among his favourite activities.

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