Advocates Urge Adoption of Old Grid for Geolocation

Apr 17, 2020  | 6 min  | Ep4535

Years ago, when the unnamed road outside your place became 270th street, there was some eye rolling. The first time firefighters unfamiliar with the area made a rescue, the benefits became clear. Use of a decades old version to pinpoint your location is gaining ground. Colleen Bradford Krantz has more in our Cover Story.

Lydia Mink, who had traveled from the Twin Cities in January 2013 to visit her grandparents in Silver Bay, Minnesota, headed out for some cross country skiing on a particularly sunny afternoon. She had been skiing for nearly an hour, following the trail maps she occasionally found, when she became disoriented.

Lydia Mink, Shoreview, Minnesota: “I remember going against my better judgment or my natural intuition thinking that I would take a right …And that’s where everything went wrong.”

Her fear increased when she saw prints in the snow she was certain belonged to wolves, which are known to live in the area.

Lydia Mink, Shoreview, Minnesota: “It was getting pretty dark… And it was really quiet and all the other animals aren’t around, you know. Am I being followed? And my mind started playing with me.”

Mink soon reached a wider snowmobile trail, where she discovered an unfamiliar blue-and-white sign. Having a decent cell phone signal again, she was able to answer a call from Lake County rescuers.

Audio from call: Rescuer: Is this Lydia? Lydia: This is is…. Rescuer: … I’ve got help on the way and they are glad to come up there and get you so I don’t want you to move around too much…. Lydia: Now I’m at, it’s an emergency location: 15T XN. And then there’s two big four-digit numbers. It’s 2766 and 3955. Rescuer: That is perfect because you know what that is? That’s a GPS coordinate for my rescue guys coming in. Of all the signs out in the woods right there, you are probably at the best one. Lydia: Okay. Phew.

Lake County, along Lake Superior between Duluth and Canada, includes nearly 2,000 square miles of wilderness and 900 miles of trails. In 2011, SharedGeo, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit, worked with the county to create better location markers. The signs they created showed a series of numbers representing a location under a system known as the U.S. National Grid, or USNG. It was one of those blue-and-white signs, now standardized for national useLydia Mink found that day in the forest.

B.J. Kohlstedt, Lake County (MN) Emergency Management: ““We often have people on snowmobile trails and if they get lost or injured, they’ll call 911 on their cell phones. And the dispatcher will ask them, ‘Okay, where are you?’ And honestly, they say, ‘I’m somewhere between Two Harbors and Canada. You know, this is about a hundred miles.”

The U.S. National Grid is essentially the same geolocation system the U.S. Military has used since World War IILocations can be conveyed using just the last eight digits instead of the 11 needed with latitude and longitude. Those also can be conveyed in three different formats, as well.

While triangulating cell phone signals can help locate lost callers, problems arise in rural areas with few cell towers. keeps accurate location information even without cellular service by using satellites to establish your location.

B.J. Kohlstedt, Lake County (MN) Emergency Management Director: “The accuracy of that location marker could be five or ten miles …The app is 30 feet, the size of this room.”

Stephen Swazee, Sr., a retired airline pilot and chair of a Minnesota emergency preparedness committee, is a founder of SharedGeo. Swazee and others have spent countless hours over the past decade trying to get federal, state and local jurisdictions to use the U.S. National Grid.

Stephen Swazee, Sr., SharedGeo: “Approximately one-third of all response calls in the United States at this time go to a location without a street address…When you have a disaster, who shows up but individuals from outside the community. They don’t have working knowledge of that area in a way that they can respond to someone telling them on a headset, ‘Hey you need to go down to Joe’s bar and hang a left.”

In 2015, FEMA issued a directive saying it would use USNG as its standard geographic reference system. The directive grew, in part, out of the difficulties related to locating stranded or injured people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Stephen Swazee, Sr., SharedGeo: “It would be ridiculous to think that the lack of communication about location did not result in people getting injured or killed.”

Still, many emergency response teams have not yet trained their personnel to use USNG.

Stephen Swazee, Sr., SharedGeo: “The U.S. Fire Administration in 2013 did a survey to find out how many entities out there were actually using U.S. National Grid in their response efforts. Two percent was the answer.”

The Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area is one exception. At the South Metro Station, emergency responders primarily use street addresses, but have had occasional incidents where it paid off to know USNG.

Mark Erickson, South Metro Fire Department, chief of operations: “It is a very simple, intuitive tool.”

In one case, a man, woman and young child became lost while boating in the backwaters of the Mississippi River as an evening thunderstorm approached.

Mark Erickson, South Metro Fire Department, chief of operations: “We checked with the cell phone company and we were able to get his location to within about an area of 10 square miles so it didn’t do a whole lot for us. … I said can I sent you a text message with a web address on it, and go to that web address and take a screenshot of what comes up and send the picture of that screen back to me…Within two minutes, I had a picture back from him that told me where he was within about 10 meters.”

Despite such successes, the nation has a long way to go before the grid is widely adopted.

Stephen Swazee, Sr., SharedGeo: “This is like planting a tree. This is not like flipping a light switch. Ultimately we need leadership from the top … Otherwise people continue to be off doing their own thing.”

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