14:32 PM

Cell Phone Team Leads Quick Rescue in Frigid Wash. River

Capt. Margot Myers
Public Information Officer
National Cell Phone Forensics Team

A 39-year-old man who fell into the subfreezing Hoh River in northwestern Washington state was rescued Friday thanks to quick action by Civil Air Patrol's National Cell Phone Forensics Team, taking CAP to nine lives saved since the beginning of the year.

The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center alerted the cell phone forensics team at 5:30 p.m. local time following a request from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. Lt. Col. Vic LaSala, an analyst trainee on the cell team, was the first to respond.

LaSala was told the missing hiker had fallen into the river while hiking. He had called his wife but was incoherent. She contacted the sheriff's office, which asked for help from the cellular carrier, but some issues made the location unreliable. The sheriff’s office then contacted the AFRCC.

LaSala set up the “communicator” function in the cell team’s software. Twenty minutes after the alert, this sent a message the missing man’s phone, asking him to click a link that would provide location information to rescuers.

Three minutes later he did so, yielding a location with 12-meter accuracy. Local search and rescue officials were given the coordinates at 5:55 p.m. – five minutes before his phone stopped working.

The one-word response from a sheriff's office employee: “Awesome!” That was followed by another message saying that ground teams were on their way to the location, which turned out to be 4.5 miles away from the initial location provided by the cellular carrier. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter carried out the rescue, as ground teams were having trouble reaching the site.

“The data the team provided led a USCG helo right to the subject, and it really saved his life,” said John Desmarais, CAP director of operations. "Our team was told he was extremely hypothermic with more than 24 inches of snow on the ground and he had fallen in a river.

“The cell phone team's quick work saved this man's life for sure,” Desmarais said. “They got what was needed with just a few minutes to spare.”

Had the team not been called quickly, it likely wouldn’t have been able to get a pinpoint location after the phone stopped working, he added.

Since the beginning of the calendar year, the cell phone team has been assigned 18 missions and credited by the AFRCC with 14 finds and nine saves.