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Published May 20, 2013, 02:17 PM

Funny-looking Minnesota Markers might save you

Night had fallen in the Minnesota arrowhead, and a cross country skier was hopelessly lost on a trail somewhere outside of Silver Bay with no flashlight to cut through the darkness. She had a phone for contacting rescuers but no way to give them a location with any precision. Then the ski trail crossed a snowmobile trail and the woman made out a blue and white placard with odd numerical sequences.

By: Julio Ojeda-Zapata, St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Night had fallen in the Minnesota arrowhead, and a cross country skier was hopelessly lost on a trail somewhere outside of Silver Bay with no flashlight to cut through the darkness. She had a phone for contacting rescuers but no way to give them a location with any precision.

Then the ski trail crossed a snowmobile trail and the woman made out a blue and white placard with odd numerical sequences, along with instructions to call 911. She did so, read the two sets of four numbers to the Lake County dispatcher and in minutes got a snowmobile ride to safety.

The skier had been saved by the U.S. National Grid, the obscure but broadly used coordinate system that is more precise for such rescue work than longitudes and latitudes.

The sign with the pair of numerical sequences gave Lake County authorities the skier's location within about 10 meters -- good enough to find the woman.

The U.S. National Grid has existed for decades, but its use on rescue signs is relatively new. In Lake County, the so-called Minnesota Marker system has been in use only since summer 2011.

The signs, designed by St. Paul mapping experts, could soon spread across the country to save the lost and injured in wilderness areas and to serve as geographical markers in disaster areas, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

Lake County, with about 140 of the signs on snowmobile trails, has drawn the scrutiny of top U.S. mapping, rescue, government and military officials, who will weigh their effectiveness in deciding whether to make them a national standard.

Then comes the hard part: selling the notion to state and local governments, ski and snowmobile clubs and others with a say on how recreational and wilderness lands are used.

Lake County officials have met little resistance. In fact, a local snowmobile club had been weighing the use of geographical markers on its trails, but did not know what kind to use, according to B.J. Kohlstedt, the county's emergency-management director. They jumped at the chance to use the new signs.

With the rescue of that cross country skier last winter, Kohlstedt hopes more local organizations (including area restaurants and retail establishments in a promotional capacity) will warm to the Minnesota Marker system.

"We are not forcing this on anyone," she said.

Educating dispatchers, first responders and other law-enforcement and rescue operatives about the U.S. National Grid is another big undertaking, Kohlstedt added. Though the grid has been the state's preferred coordinate system since 2009, many remain unfamiliar with it.

The U.S. National Grid carves the nation into 100,000-meter (or 100-kilometer) squares, each with a two-letter ID. Within each square, pairs of numerical sequences pinpoint locations.

The longer the sequences, the more precise the coordinates are. Sets of four-digit sequences are accurate to about 1,000 square meters and eight-digit sequences are accurate to 10 meters.

It's relatively easy for the public to harness the grid system. Most commercial Global Positioning System devices understand it.

The Minnesota Marker signs soon could spread from Lake County to nearby Cook and St. Louis counties, thereby filling out the state's arrowhead -- except for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where placards are banned.

The signs are the handiwork of SharedGeo, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that works with the state of Minnesota and others on mapping-related projects. Through trial and error, it has come up with signs in a variety of sizes and with designs that likely would pass muster with local, state and federal officials just about anywhere.

It is experimenting with different sign materials, such as metal and plastic.

What SharedGeo is doing has national implications.

It is a part of a U.S. committee that includes top academic, military and civilian mapping experts. These are looking to SharedGeo's project in the Minnesota arrowhead as the primary test of the U.S. National Grid in an emergency-sign capacity. If they like what they see, the signs eventually could be everywhere.

The Maryland-based National Emergency Training Center has already fashioned a U.S. National Grid course for emergency responders, using Lake County's sign format as a model.

Some of the signs produced by SharedGeo are intentionally blank. This gives the recipients the flexibility to designate their own grid coordinates as needed.

This would be the approach during disasters -- such as tsunamis and hurricanes -- that wipe the landscape clean of recognizable landmarks and require aid workers to fashion their own in order to properly coordinate their efforts.

"After the Fukushima earthquake, you end up with a sea of lumber," said SharedGeo executive director Steve Swazee. "With nothing more than a GPS hand unit, you could create signs in the field."

Progress on the Minnesota-arrowhead disaster-sign trial has been slower than Swazee would have liked because of financial constraints.

"We're pretty much funding this thing by ourselves and can only put things forward so fast," he said. "We are trying to get the pilot project finished by this summer. The project has a great deal of potential in terms of supporting the common good nationally."

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