Considerations for Rope Rescue in 2012 (Kenneth N. Laidlaw)

posted Oct 26, 2011, 10:05 PM by Ken Buscho   [ updated Jan 8, 2014, 10:26 PM by Ken Buscho ]

Quick Start Guide to APRS for Search and Rescue Application

posted Oct 26, 2011, 9:53 PM by Ken Buscho   [ updated Dec 2, 2011, 4:25 PM by Ken Buscho ]

Quick Start Guide to APRS for Search and Rescue Application

Bay Area Search and Rescue Council 2009
Chris Wong N6JGC

What is APRS?
APRS = Automatic Packet Reporting System.  See positions of SAR teams in real-time on a map.

For hams who want more in-depth information about APRS, see Bob Bruninga’s APRS site.  This provides more information about the full spectrum of APRS communication.


In SAR applications, what equipment do I need to get on the air?

Tracker: (the transmitter unit that goes in field pack)

  • You must be a licensed ham radio operator (technician or higher license class) or there must be a license ham acting as a “control operator” for all stations transmitting over the ham bands.  FCC requirement.
  • A reliable GPS that works in dense foliage capable of transmitting an NMEA text string to an RS-232 connector (DB9).
  • A reliable handheld 2 meter radio (144.390Mz) capable of transmitting 1 to 3W for the duration of a search.  Hiigh capacity battery packs are strongly recommended.
  • TinyTrak 3 Plus interface device (see for more details)
  • Interface cables for GPS and Radio, including any adapters needed
  • Access to a computer that can program the TinyTrak 3P interface unit

Figure 1-1: APRS Tracker set up utilizing TinyTrak3P, Yaesu FT-530, Byonics GPS2, short interface cable w/9V alkaline battery.  Primary/Secondary switch included to adjust transmit rates on the fly.  Components fit nicely into PMI radio chest harness from Search Gear products.

The TinyTrak, interface cables, and programming software can all be obtained from Byonics of Las Vegas, NV.  See for more information.

Internet Access:

  • Ability to view APRS position reports on the web at the following sites:

  • Exact call signs of the units to be tracked (including the suffix –n designator)

(Note:  Transmitting stations must be in range of a digipeater which is tied to the Internet via IGates.  In most urban areas of the Bay Area, this is not a problem.  When you get into the remote area along the Pacific Coast or Sierra mountains, you may encounter limitations.)


If I want to monitor station packets directly, what do I need? (e.g. when you don’t have access to the web in the field)?

APRS Receive Station: (the receiving unit which maps the position reports on a computer)

  • You do not need to be a ham radio operator just to receive radio transmissions.  Be sure the radio is locked not to transmit or the software is set up so the unit is not digipeating.
  • A Terminal Node Controller (TNC)
  • A reliable receive radio that can interface with a TNC – portable or mobile
  • Good external antenna capable of picking up weak radio signals in the field
  • Ground mounting (e.g. tripod) and 15 to 20 feet of masting
  • Computer with RS-232 (DB9) serial port or USB port with the appropriate USB-to-Serial adapter
  • Coax and necessary RF adapters
  • Necessary interface and power cables for radio

(note: A GPS is not required for a receive station)

Figure 1-2: APRS Receive Station set up utilizing Kantronics KPC-2 TNC, Kenwood TR-2500 2M HT, laptop computer and USB-to-Serial interface cable.  Radio is connected to external antenna at home.

APRS Software:

The recommended software for SAR applications are:
DMapper  (shareware license required)
WinAPRS  (shareware license required)

Software Package




  • Program running in background which uses National Geo Topo! Software or MapTech Software waypoint importing function
  • Last revision 2008
  • A maximum of 8 units can only be tracked
  • Waypoint import to mapping software requires some computer skills


  • Easy to set up and use
  • Good at providing high-level views
  • Can import a map as a GIF file and anchor it in the program with known Lat/Long coordinates
  • Map details are very limited in base Tiger maps of US
  • Last update in 2008
  • Map updates are available for Tiger maps but not easy



  • Program running in background which uses DeLorme Street Atlas Versions 4-9.
  • Packed full of tracking features
  • Program documentation is limited and there are too many features
  • Street Atlas Ver 9 is outdated and no map updates are available
  • Last update 2006

APRS Point

  • Product seems to be more current but have not researched in depth

  • Utilizes MS MapPoint software
  • Not a lot of experience with software
  • Demos look similar to APRS + SA but tracking capability seems more robust in APRS + SA


Most SAR teams are using either DMapper or WinAPRS on the Microsoft Windows platform, although WinAPRS is available for the Mac.  These packages seem to be well suited for use of topographical maps.  APRS Point and APRS + SA are more geared toward tracking of vehicles over a larger area.  Map details are not available at the same level as the recommended programs.

What can I do to increases reliability in the field?

On average, APRS is about 70% reliable.  The key factors that can increase reliability and usability are:

  • Good antennas and power (on both receive and tracker stations)
  • Rugged tracker units that can handle the elements
  • Extra batteries for radio and tracker
  • Setting up digipeating station on a high mountain top above the search area
  • Competent and experienced APRS users who have years of field experience in deploying and operating APRS
  • Dedicated computer for tracking and mapping


Where do I go to get help?

APRS for SAR applications is very much experimental.  Everyone has an opinion and there are 1000 ways to make a tracker.  Some folks swear by certain software programs; there functions in every software package that users hate.  It all comes down to what the user is most comfortable with both with Trackers and Software.

Good sites for learning more about APRS are:


APRS for SAR is a special application, and the challenges of poor reception, extreme environment, and an emergency situation tend to favor systems which are tested, reliable, and easy to use.  Folks who have actual field experience in deploying and using APRS for searches are the ones to seek out.

Feel free to contact any of the following for assistance.  This list will grow as more teams gain experience with APRS.

Chris Wong N6JGC
Greg Carter NV6G
Don Wing KG6IZS

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