EFJohnson Technologies now offers the Discover, a GPS-enabled microphone and LCD device marketed to first responders working in remote terrains. EFJ is selling the technology and working to develop new microphone models under a contractual deal with Infinity Gear, said Kevin Nolan, EFJ's spokesperson.

The device consists of two hardware pieces: a microphone with an embedded GPS device and a 120- by 160-pixel monochrome screen with backlit LCD display. The microphone tracks up to 16 satellites to keep tabs on personnel in the field, and the unit then auto-transmits the data to a centralized location. In addition, the information is stored in an on-board memory chip and can be downloaded via a USB cable to a PC for data storage and analysis, said Rick Phung, an EFJ product manager.

The microphone plugs into almost any two-way radio, Phung said, and its software suite supports mapping applications. For example, one application lets users pinpoint their location in relation to a pre-programmed radio group in real-time. It also records and displays users' locations, as well as temperature, altitude, direction of travel and speed — which then can be calculated into an estimated time of arrival. Results are viewed on the LCD display.

“The device gives [users] accurate information and location relative to other field team members,” Phung said.

The device's software suite also supports short text messages when mobile voice communications are not convenient or available. For instance, team members' coordinates can be transmitted via text message to first-responder talk groups during field operations, Phung said. As far as security goes, the microphone is capable of encrypted transmissions dependent on the user's radio configuration. It's also compatible with various GIS software packages that allow users to view and track the position of all group members in real time, overlaid on a map.

First responders working in remote environments already have tested the device, said Tom Patterson, wildland fire specialist with the Environmental Systems Research Institute, a provider of GIS products. Patterson, who was a wildfire firefighter in the western U.S. before joining the company, explained that the very nature of wildfires' remote terrain hinder radio and Internet communications. In addition, a fire's direction and speed can change abruptly due to both weather conditions and the fire's unpredictable burn rate.

“The environment makes it tough to set up repeaters and other remote communications systems to track first responders,” he said. “So agencies now can use the microphone's built-in GPS-based module to track field personnel during such events.”

Patterson also tested the device with search-and-rescue teams in Redlands, Calif. He said field personnel appreciated the size — no bigger than a PDA — and that it operated reliably in rugged conditions. “We had it up in the mountains at 7000 feet in blizzard conditions and it held up very well,” he said.

Patterson said the No. 1 advantage of the microphone is cost.

“It works on any radio frequency, on any radio, so if you want real-time tracking of all of your personnel in the field, you can use your existing radio network with the microphone — you don't have to go out and buy a new radio system,” he said. “That's the biggest selling point of it I can see.”

The device operates on analog or digital channels and is P25 compatible. Its enclosure is IP-54 rated for resistance to dust and water. The analog model costs $500 and the digital model costs $750, Phung said.