The first urgent call came from the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center December 22 as night fell and a family was overdue after setting off around noon to cut down a live Christmas tree near Eugene, Oregon.
Trackers using cellphone technology quickly triangulated 10 potential whereabouts amid concerns that the signal pings identifying a location for the missing family were just “a snapshot in time” that could change with additional movements, said cellphone forensics team analyst Maj. Justin Ogden. Summer wildfires affected the effort because they had burned a cellphone tower near one of the most likely locations, complicating the mathematical pinpoint.
A coordinated effort with local search-and-rescue personnel included dispatching a helicopter to scour the areas. The snowbound family was spotted in a dense forest at about 12:30 p.m. local time on December 23, said Scott Lucas, state search-and-rescue coordinator for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. “We were lucky to find a white car in the snow,” Lucas said. Ground teams followed the aerial lead and guided the family to safety.
Lucas complimented the technology, which includes overlays on Google Earth maps and special GPS files that are shared between the forensic teams on the ground and the helicopter crew in the air. “They gave us a direction to focus our search” without wasting valuable resources, Lucas said.
Members of the same forensic team were roused around 6 a.m. local time December 27 to search for a missing 25-year-old snowmobiler in Kootenai County, Idaho, one state to the east. The man had gone snowmobiling with friends but separated from the rest of the group overnight and became lost.
An initial step in the process is to determine if the missing person’s cellphone is turned on—and if it is, a message is sent indicating that a search-and-rescue team is trying to locate the phone’s owner. In this case, about an hour after the message was sent at 6:27 a.m., the snowmobiler responded via text message and shared a GPS location from his phone. Since the GPS coordinates are the most accurate indication of the person’s location, Ogden relayed them to the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office, along with the GPS file for the map overlay.
“Less than two hours later,” the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center was notified that the missing snowmobiler was located and returned to safety.
The two December rescues added to a fiscal year tally of more than 130 saves using forensic technology, and a total of 340 lives that were saved via all means—including additional missions performed with grid-based aerial search-and-rescue methods.
The Civil Air Patrol operates a fleet of 560 single-engine Cessna aircraft and nearly 2,000 drones that perform about 90 percent of search-and-rescue operations within the contiguous United States.