Safety in the field: How remote data technology can help scientists in wilderness locations

In the field

Some Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) protected properties are out of reach of even the most robust digital and cellular networks. In the past, teams of NCC scientists working in remote locations might have spent long hours and even days out of reach of their colleagues, friends and family.But thanks to NCC investments in advanced, cost-effective communications technologies, NCC workers now have access to devices that ensure ongoing connectivity even when they are far off the beaten path.

While there are many solutions on the market that help ensure worker safety in remote locations, NCC uses personal locators and communication devices. Both are powered by satellite connections that report locations accurately on a map and, with some devices, also allow two-way communications.


GPS personal tracker keeps Newfoundland & Labrador conservation biologist connected

The personal tracker (in this case a Spot GPS) used by Megan Lafferty, an NCC conservation biologist for Newfoundland and Labrador, can send automatic emails to her colleagues and emergency contacts, and plots her location on a map. If needed, the device has a “help” button that will send a preset message to whatever contacts the user has indicated It also has a “911” button for true emergencies that will send a message to a call centre, which will then call emergency contacts before they alert the local emergency first responders.

“We need devices like this on two of our properties in particular – The Grasses and Lloyds River. Both are very remote, and our field monitoring is done as a multi-day backcountry camping trip.”

Megan recenty used the device to automatically advise her supervisor and her parents back in Ontario of her movements. “My parents thought it was fun, because along with the update on my location, it put my location on Google Maps for them to see.”

 “It is very important to familiarize yourself with the operation of any GPS tracking device before you take it into the field. It also doesn’t replace the need to plan ahead and have appropriate safety plans and training in place. These devices have limited use unless we have preset plans with people in the office to check in, and supplied emergency numbers.”


Putting remote technology to work in the field

Leta Pezderic is the Natural Area Manager for Southeast Alberta and is responsible for monitoring over 35,000 acres (14,164 hectares) of prairie grasslands in southeastern Alberta. Some of the properties she has to access are particularly remote. In order to stay connected, Leta recently began using the Garmin inReach SE+ device. So far she has been happy with the results – not just because of the device’s enhanced safety capabilities, but because it also enabled her to use her tablet and cell phone in the field in areas without cellular service.

Some newer devices, such as the one that Pezderic uses, connect to other Bluetooth devices such as iPads and smartphones, as long as the devices are synced and logged into the account before the user enters the field – an important detail for trip planning. Once set up, these devices may allow users to text, tweet, post updates, and communicate in other ways from remote locations. “It gives you the ability for live communications, and that makes it more than just a safety device. We can engage the public and show them the exciting things we do in remote areas where there is no cell service.”

Recently, Leta used the device to let her leaseholder know about an injured cow in an area without cell service. “We noticed a lame cow in one of our pastures. We texted the leaseholder to let them know that a cow was down and were able to give them the location and have a full two-way conversation with the leaseholder over text. In the past, we haven’t had that ability in areas without service.”

On one occasion, Leta’s team was recording information on pre-generated maps downloaded onto their tablets. An unscheduled detour to an area off the preloaded map forced Leta turn to the device. “We were able to pull up the map, and that allowed us to continue to collect our data. We were then able to export the collected location information to use in our reporting.”

For Leta, remote data connectivity provides extra confidence that she’ll be able to communicate in an emergency. “I have wildlife interactions all the time. Over the years, working in the field I’ve encountered all sorts of critters; everything from cougars, bears and even rattlesnakes. You have to know that if something goes sideways, you have a device on your hip that’s going to send out a call to emergency responders. I feel better knowing that we have a connection all the time in the field with the inReach.” 

Nature Conservancy of Canada