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  4. A skier lost in Minnesota’s Arrowhead looks up and sees this: Hope
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  • A skier lost in Minnesota’s Arrowhead looks up and sees this: Hope

    By Sue Casement, 3M Storyteller

    A person treks through a snowy field
    Lost in the Arrowhead

    As darkness fell, a cross-country skier grew panicked as she realized she was lost. She was on a trail in the remote wilderness of the northeast tip of Minnesota – called the arrowhead.

    She crossed a motorcycle trail and spotted a shiny sign with the words “Emergency Location” across the top. That’s when she called 911 and read a pair of four-digit numbers to a dispatcher. Within minutes, her rescuer was by her side, arriving on a snowmobile.

    Graphic illustrating the meaning of the numbers on a geographic marker

    The signs had only recently been placed on remote trails. 3M reflective sheeting makes them more visible, and number coordinates pinpoint a location. The numbers are a simple and precise way to locate a site on a grid within 10 square meters. This U.S. National Grid system is easier for rescuers to use than latitude and longitude and is based on the Military Grid Reference System, implemented shortly after World War II.

    • Steve Swazee, executive director of SharedGeo, poses next to a geographic marker

      The system was first used for civilians in northern Minnesota, because people would call 911 and say, “I’m lost somewhere on a trail between Ely and Canada.” In a location with limited rescue resources – and high amounts of tourism – officials saw a need for quicker response times, said Steve Swazee, executive director of SharedGeo.

      Steve points out that emergency markers are a relatively low-cost solution when cities invest in improving emergency response times. “Today 60 percent of calls to 911 come in on cell phones,” he says. “Cell towers have a 40 meter accuracy at best.” Responders could come in on the wrong side of a river and have to backtrack. Now, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa officials are pursuing posting such signs in parks and trails systems. Steve notes that people are often unfamiliar with their location, or there’s no street address, so using the grid coordinate system could be a life-saver.

    “The signs are typically placed at trail heads, where trails cross and in warming huts. Park officials also identify high-risk areas where accidents are more common, such as where a trail crosses a road.”

    If you are lost or injured

    • Prepare:

      Bookmark the mobile app on your phone at usngapp.org. It will give your location in the grid.

    • If you find a sign:

      Call 911. Give location, reading the eight larger digits in blue. These are specific grid coordinates for your region.

      If requested, read the smaller numbers, which give regional codes on the national grid.