GPS for Better Flow

August 1, 2004
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Geo-locating fire hydrants for a county GIS aids developing area.

Survey technician Roger Turner of Moore Bass Consulting Inc. applies GPS technology in a fire hydrant inventory GIS project in Georgia's fast-growing Gwinnett County.


The U.S. Census Bureau has reported that half of the nation's 10 fastest growing counties are located in Georgia. Growing at a current population rate of 14.4 percent and currently ranking at 55 of the top 100, Gwinnett County in metropolitan Georgia could very well be one of these Top 10 during the next study. About 30 minutes outside of Atlanta and bordering Forsyth County, the fifth fastest growing county in the United States, Gwinnett County's governmental departments protect more than 670,000 people.

The county's Department of Fire and Emergency Services is the largest fire service district in the state of Georgia for the number of legal jurisdictions (15) under one fire department. Just last year, the department's Operations Division effectively responded to 74,950 fire and medical alarms. For this, it has been the proud recipient of awards for prompt arson response.

The Fire and Emergency Services Department serves county residents by preparing for fire and medical emergencies, and natural disasters. To ensure that fire personnel can effectively do their jobs and keep up with the rapid expansion in the county, regular inspections and maintenance of fire hydrants are mandated. The fire hydrant inventory is part of the county's geographic information system (GIS). To conduct the evaluations, the contractor, Triton Industries of Conyers, Ga., and subcontractor Moore Bass Consulting of McDonough, Ga., applied smart and sensible planning, and some modern technology. That technology-GPS-has set a new standard for the county of Gwinnett.

Calling on the Professionals

When Triton Industries was hired to evaluate, record and in some cases, service 32,000 of the county's 55,000 fire hydrants, the company's operations manager, Eric Moseley, had no worries about completing the task. Triton has specialized in utility services for private firms and governmental agencies for many years. Prepared to grease, paint and perform pressure tests on each fire hydrant-in a 15-month time frame-Moseley set a goal for his team to cover more than 100 hydrants each day.

The recommended annual evaluation of fire hydrants by the American Water Works Association, and enforced by Gwinnett County, exists for good reason. In the critical time of a fire, firefighters have arrived on the scene, connected their hose nozzles to the nearest fire hydrants and often received a meager 2 lbs of water-not enough to extinguish a blazing fire and save those in potential danger. Firefighters have then had to scatter around the neighborhood, seeking hydrants with an adequate supply of water. It's a situation nobody desires. And in the fast-growing county of Gwinnett, inventory of the water distribution system is recognized as the difference between life or death. Through responsible and smart action, the condition of low or inadequate water pressure from fire hydrants continues to be conquered by flow model evaluation and pressure tests.

In many counties, fire hydrant inventory, evaluation and maintenance is a task undertaken by the local fire departments. Taking into consideration understaffing and liability concerns, and the cost-effectiveness of subcontracting, many counties have turned to the true professionals for this work. And with more and more counties seeking to complete their GISs, it makes sense. Many counties don't even know how many fire hydrants they have, leaving their GISs incomplete. Previously, the fire hydrants in Gwinnett County were approximately scaled in on maps, most often from the old method of drive-by observations. This method often proved its inefficient results and caused much rework during each subsequent inventory. Gwinnett County, an area known for its progressive nature, tacked on new requirements for the most recent inventory: GPS coordinate data for each fire hydrant, as well as the easting, northing and identification number data. To fulfill these requirements, Moseley called on the surveying division of Moore Bass Consulting.

Triton had not worked with Moore Bass before, and in fact, Moore Bass had not conducted such work as hydrant inventory. "We've performed numerous other GIS inventory projects relating to stormwater," says Wayne Powers, RLS, director of surveying services. "Locating fire hydrants is pretty much the same as locating other features needed when performing field data collection, and we have a lot of experience collecting different kinds of data."

The customary workload for Moore Bass includes residential land development, which accounts for 60 to 70 percent of its work, boundary work for large acreage lots, topo and wetland jobs, and construction layout and final platting for engineers. The division has also done work for commercial clients, including ALTA surveys, photogrammetric control for aerial mapping and a small amount of GIS support. With such a compendium of performance strength, it's no wonder the local equipment dealer, Advance Precision Products, Atlanta, recommended Moore Bass to Triton. "We have a proven track record using GPS technology, which helped seal the deal," Powers says. Moseley figured he couldn't go wrong.

Turning on the GPS

Moore Bass was subcontracted to provide easting and northing data, and identification numbers for approximately 15,000 fire hydrants in Gwinnett County. Moore Bass will also provide the GPS coordinates for about 30 percent of the county's hydrants.

Powers turned to the company's trusty GPS equipment for the Gwinnett project, technology they've relied on for many projects over the years. The surveying division has been using GPS technology since the late 1990s. They started with the Trimble (Sunnyvale, Calif.) 4700 GPS receiver in 1998, later upgrading to the Trimble 5700 RTK GPS receiver, both cutting edge for the time. They've since added the Trimble R8 RTK GPS system to their arsenal this past January. Powers says much time is saved using GPS, and especially with the newer arrangement that allows more flexibility. "We used to locally set up a base, which could take up to four hours. We'd have to tie it down to establish the coordinate [and] provide staff to make sure it didn't get stolen. Now we spend all day doing the location work."

Confidence in the accuracy from the GPS setup provides immeasurable savings for Moore Bass, according to Powers. "Every single project of ours is tied to the same coordinate system-the same base-so it's increased our confidence in our accuracy," he says. The base station Moore Bass uses, a Trimble NetRS GPS unit, is located at its office in Henry County, the sixth fastest growing county in the States, just two counties away. With the rapid development in this area, this location is especially valuable for Moore Bass. "We're right here in the county seat," Powers says. "Seventy-five percent of our work is here in Henry County. All eight of our crews are using the system." For the Gwinnett project, the base location is approximately 50 miles from the project area.

The two one-person crews follow the GIS maps of divided land lots and districts provided by the county to plot out each day's approach. Each map shows the square land lot, the roads and all the fire hydrants that Triton has painted. Since Moore Bass gets paid on a per structure basis instead of hourly, Powers' crews are to complete as many hydrants in a day as they can, which can be anywhere from 10 to 50 per square. "The amount of revenue we generate each day is determined by how many fire hydrants are located each day," Powers says. "We haven't lost any money yet."

Powers attributes this success to the office-based GPS base station, hard-working staff, a properly assigned budget, solid project management and Moore Bass' Internet-based cell phone setup.

Cellular Ease

Many older GPS arrangements utilize radio links as transmitters, but radio and transmitter interruptions, and range limitations often stifle the performance of these links. The advent of cell phone technology improved this procedure, allowing cell phone-to-cell phone communication, but it too had limitations, especially in non-metropolitan areas where coverage was inadequate.

Moore Bass had used the traditional radio setup in the past, but Powers said they were only able to use it within three to five miles. Fortunately, the crews working in Gwinnett have Internet-based cell phone technology to use, which provides a much more longer distance coverage. This new system transfers the RTK data from the roof-mounted base station to a dedicated and fully accessible Internet site. Powers says a rover receives data via a specialized cellular modem made by AirLink Communications Inc., a national wireless solutions provider.

"We could never have done this project with our conventional setup," Powers says. "We have tested the system with survey grade measurements at 30 miles and submeter measurements at [more than] 60 miles. Now we just use the cell phone to carry corrections to the Internet. Anyone with Internet access can get the correction codes. But it can only be used where there is cell coverage. Luckily, we have that in metro Georgia."

Moore Bass has unlimited minutes on its cellular plan and Powers says its speed has been upgraded to 56K, making initialization about five seconds.

The most notable advantage of this system for Moore Bass has been its savings, which allows the company to utilize two one-person location crews for less chargeable time compared to a conventional crew, Powers says. Once the crews have located enough structures to cover their posted time in a day, the remaining location work becomes profit.

The Old and the New

In planning its attack for the Gwinnett County project, Moore Bass used some resourceful approaches-they smartly and creatively converted many of the tools already in their "toolbox" to suit their needs. They also pitched for a couple of new pieces of equipment.

"It's not a small price for the equipment," Powers admits. "[For the Gwinnett project] we bought one new rover and a new base, [but we] converted all the units we had from 1998. Our 5700 base was converted to a rover and another rover to an Internet-based rover, so now we have a total of seven survey-grade/mapping-grade units. The equipment wasn't cheap, but we're really seeing a huge payoff in profitability."

Occasionally, Moore Bass pulls out its backpack unit for its work, as it did for the Gwinnett project. The setup includes a Trimble TSCe controller and a Trimble GPS Pathfinder Pro XR receiver. Whichever method used, Powers says they are "meeting or exceeding the accuracy requirements of this project by plus or minus one meter horizontal."

Each day Moore Bass brings back the data collected (in its own ASCII file) and downloads it with real-time coordinates. Data is delivered to Triton once a week. The data from Moore Bass aids Triton in cross-referencing their attribute data. Triton reads the data into the base map, graphically plotting where they should work next. Triton can then deliver a report on each fire hydrant to the county along with applicable invoices for maintenance work and the other information, such as GPS coordinates, that the county can incorporate into its GIS program.

Positioned for the Future

The Gwinnett fire hydrant inventory project is expected to be complete by March 2005; there are only 10,000 more hydrants to go. Then, the county will have all the information it needs at its finger tips. Firefighters should have ample water for fire emergencies and Gwinnett County will be ready for any future development in the area. Most of the hydrants will be located with GPS and all maps will contain the same attribute information, improving the county's GIS. In the process of completing the project, two companies have proven their expertise to each other, opening potential doors for the future.

"They [Moore Bass] have done a real[ly] professional job," Moseley praises. "I'd use them again. We work out of state, too. I'd use them out of town. They'll at least have the first right to refusal."

One thing that may need a little more time for recovery and improvement, however, is the impact the project has had on survey technician Roger Turner, who says he's seeing fire hydrants in his sleep. "I point out all the fire hydrants to my fiancée on the way to dinner," he says.

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