Emergency responders in Crawford County will soon be able to find home storm shelters even if covered with debris or in areas devastated by a disaster.

Western Arkansas Planning and Development District is working with Crawford County emergency personnel under a grant that allows workers to catalog the GPS points for individual storm shelters.

Beginning Monday, field workers were out logging the GPS coordinates, said Tina Thompson, geographic information systems manager and 911 coordinator with WAPDD.

Workers literally go stand on top of the shelters and use a GPS unit that measures coordinates to sub-centimeter accuracy, collecting the point and information for the shelter location, Thompson said.

That information will be securely entered into GPS units and on maps for emergency responders in Crawford County, who can then use the information to find a shelter after a disaster, Thompson said.

"What it allows them to do is walk right up to the site and they may not see the storm shelter, but they’re standing right on it and the GPS will show that," Thompson said.

WAPDD is using a list of storm shelters and saferooms approved and registered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to contact individuals via postcard about logging their shelter’s GPS point, Thompson said.

Only those who wish to have their shelters cataloged will be included in the project, though anyone without a FEMA-approved shelter also can participate if they contact WAPDD, she said.

Thompson noted that any information gathered for the project will not be given out to the public, but will be used strictly by emergency personnel.

The purpose of the project is to be able to more quickly help anyone who may be trapped in their shelter after a disaster such as a tornado, during which debris could cover the shelter or the surrounding landscape can be changed.

"We can help them quicker if they need help," Thompson said. "Nothing looks the same after a tornado comes through."

Dennis Gilstrap, Crawford County Department of Emergency Management director, has been interested in logging the GPS points of area shelters but was unable, he said. He contacted WAPDD to help out with the project.

"I didn’t really have the resources, but through WAPDD we’ll be able to do that," Gilstrap said.

According to Barbara Hager with the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, White County in east-central Arkansas is the only other jurisdiction in the state that is tracking individual shelters.

"We are not aware of a statewide initiative," Hagar wrote in an email. "Individual safe room tracking would be the responsibility of each county."

Thompson expects the GPS mapping project to be complete by the end of summer, she said.