App helps rescue crews find missing hikers, bikers faster in Seminole County

Seminole County Fire Department invents app to shorten search time

The Seminole County Fire Department is speeding up response times deep in the woods.

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. – The Seminole County Fire Department is speeding up response times deep in the woods.

Seminole County— which bills itself as “Florida’s Natural Choice” — is known for its vast amount of parks and trails, and over the past couple of years, the trails have gotten busier, which means first responders are busier trying to rescue hikers, bikers and even horseback riders.

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But deep in the woods, miles away from a trailhead, that’s a challenge. So now the Seminole County Fire Department has figured out how to find the lost and the hurt faster and better.

Rescue crews are shortening response times on the toughest, most extreme biking trails from hours down to just minutes.

There is only a firetruck and even a rescue-equipped ATV so far that can go into the woods so quite often, firefighters will have to walk, sometimes for miles, down narrow heavily-wooded root-lined trails.

If there’s a chance they may have to transport a patient, they must bring with them a uni-wheel stretcher - a foldable stretcher that rolls on a single durable rubber wheel with the help of two firefighters.

The fire department battalion based in Geneva covers much of the tens of thousands of acres of forest where hikers, bikers, and horseback riders play and get lost and get hurt, more of them more than ever because of the pandemic, according to Lt. Ed Castlen.

“People wake up and say, ‘What do you want to do’ and they’ll say, ‘Let’s go walk on this trail I saw on a map,’” Castlen said. “So you go out not prepared, don’t have a map or knowledge of the area.”

Castlen, the trails coordinator for the Seminole County Fire Department for the past decade, said the problem his first responders were having is when a call for help came in, the maps didn’t tell rescuers how to get there, when they couldn’t drive any further and when they’d have to walk.

“Sometimes you might get off on the wrong trail but you wouldn’t know it for several minutes,” Castlen said. “Once you did, you’d have to backtrack.”

And other times, bikers would call for help and tell their trail location, or at least what they call it, but that name wasn’t useful. Firefighters discovered the trails have nicknames.

“For example, we got two calls for injured bikers on the ‘Ditch of Doom’ area,” Castlen said. “It’s a very deep ditch. It also has aliases. Saturday night, Skidmark, Vortex.”

So Castlen took all of the available maps on the internet - from the equestrian community, mountain bikers, hikers, conservationists, anything he could find - and combined them into what he calls the Trails Response App, an offline downloadable map for rescuers’ tablets and cell phones.

The app can pinpoint a person using GPS, any trail name, a trail sign or even landmarks like park benches or pavilions. Once rescuers pinpoint the person, the app shows them on which trails they can drive a truck, where they must use their ATV, and where they’ll have to walk with the uni-wheel stretcher and gear.

“We know exactly where the patient is at, how to get there, what equipment we need to get there, and second by second location,” Castlen said. “If we get off the trail, we’re like nope we should have made that left and then get on the other trail.”

Seminole County firefighters now have the trails app on their phones and tablets and just used it to get to a man stung by bees, allergic, in shock, just in time. It took just several minutes to find the patient using the app.

“He said he was having difficulty swallowing which is an indicator that has airway may shut down,” Castlen said. “It could have been different.”

Firefighters don’t need cell service to use the Trails app because the information is downloaded to their phones and tablets, but Castlen warned that hikers do need cell service if they must call for help.

For anyone venturing into the woods, Castlen suggested making a plan and telling someone about it so that someone knows where to send help if you don’t come home.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.