Technology: Cell phone team helps searchers find lost in opposite sides of the US
Civil Air Patrol’s National Cell Phone Forensics Team began the new year by helping searchers locate missing men on opposite sides of the country, in New Hampshire and Montana, only a few hours apart. Early on 2 January 2020, the Air Force Rescue Coordination Centre alerted the cell team for a mission involving a missing 37-year-old man in the vicinity of Mount Lincoln in Grafton County, New Hampshire. The request for assistance came from the Grafton County Sheriff’s Office, which received a 911 call from the man indicating that he was lost and had injured his arm. Local search and rescue teams checked the coordinates indicated by the 911 call but he wasn’t there. His second call to 911 produced the same lack of results. Part of the software developed by Major Justin Ogden, the cell team’s lead analyst, is a communicator feature that attempts to contact the missing person’s phone. The individual receives a message indicating that Air Force Search and Rescue is trying to find them. If the person clicks the link in the message, as directed, it will provide phone location data for the search effort.
Missing people commonly turn off their phones to conserve battery strength. In this case, the first time the missing man turned on his phone and clicked the link, no GPS signal was locked in and the data’s accuracy wasn’t enough to help the searchers. Fifty minutes later, the phone came back on, the man clicked the link in the message and the cell team’s software provided coordinates for a search area with a target location accuracy of 33 feet. The coordinates provided by Ogden turned out to be just over 100 feet away from one of the 911 call locations.
Ogden sent a different kind of link to the incident commander, one designed to guide searchers to a specific location. It works well on smartphones, doesn’t require an app download and removes the ambiguity that sometimes arises when transferring coordinates in formats that both agencies aren’t accustomed to using. “If you send that link to field units and they pull it up on their smartphones, they will be able to see their distance to the missing person's position that we obtained,” Ogden told Lieutenant Mark W Ober Jr, District One chief for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
In fewer than eight hours from the mission alert, New Hampshire Game and Fish reported to the AFRCC that the man had been found. “It was very rough country and because of your forensic work we were able to get an accurate coordinate of where he was,” Ober wrote in a post-rescue email to Ogden. “This helped us direct the Black Hawk helicopter to the correct area. “They were able to locate him, then hoist him aboard. He had an arm injury and pretty significant cold weather-related injuries but will recover.”
The same day, less than 12 hours after the first mission began, the AFRCC assigned a second mission to the cell team and the Montana Wing. Assistance was requested in the search for a missing 34-year-old snowmobiler in Gallatin County. He had last been seen at a New Year’s Eve party at his home but he left the party on a snowmobile and was last heard from on 1 January 2020 via cellphone.
The team’s Major John Schofield determined that cellphone coverage in the area was limited but he was able to isolate the phone’s location from 9h05 to 9h31 on New Year’s Day. That most likely area was provided to ground searchers and Schofield also overlaid the most likely area on a sectional chart sent to the Montana Wing incident commander. The wing made one flight but local ground searchers found the snowmobile in the southwest corner of the team-designated most likely area and the man not far from there.
The National Cell Phone Forensics Team was assigned 341 missions by the AFRCC in calendar year 2019 and was credited with 212 finds and 99 saves. The first week of 2020, the team has been credited with five finds and six saves.
Source: Civil Air Patrol