19:17 PM

Cellphone Team Ends Year By Guiding Searchers to 4 Holiday Rescues

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

Civil Air Patrol’s National Cell Phone Forensics Team ended 2020 with a successful search and rescue mission three days before Christmas and another one two days after the holiday.

The team was credited by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center with the rescues of four people, including a 4-year-old girl and her grandparents stranded in the Willamette National Forest in Oregon.

The first mission had a high sense of urgency since it involved the child and her grandparents. The family had set off mid-afternoon Dec. 21 with a permit to cut down a Christmas tree in the forest, about 15 miles outside Eugene. When they didn’t return as expected, the girl’s mother reported them missing to the Eugene Police Department.

The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center alerted the cellphone team at 6:30 p.m. local time Dec. 22. Based on data from the grandparents’ two phones, the team provided 10 possible search areas to local search and rescue teams.

In an email to Scott Lucas, state search and rescue coordinator for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, cellphone forensics team analyst Maj. Justin Ogden noted that the suggested search areas represent a snapshot in time, and the phones could have moved afterward.

“I think reviewing these clues (and other clues outside of the phones) is important for the search planner,” Ogden wrote. “Then decide, based on all clues, where to send resources.”

Lucas said that while his office always consults cellphone service providers first to get initial pings for missing persons’ phones, the information accurately provides a location to search only about 30% of the time.

“Some cellular providers are better than others,” Lucas said, “but the most likely areas to search provided by the CAP cellphone [forensics] team are usually 99% accurate. We find the missing people right around the search areas provided by the team.”

In this search, the grandparents and child were found adjacent to one of the most likely areas, right at the edge of the cellphone service area. “The team gave us 10 locations to consider for this search. Unfortunately, one cell tower in the area burned in last summer’s wildfires, limiting the cellphone coverage,” Lucas said.

“The team gave us a broad area but with a helicopter, we were able to cover the area. We were lucky to find a white car in the snow,” Lucas said. The family’s car, stuck in the snow, was located in the forest about 12:30 p.m. local time Dec. 23, and ground teams were able to reach the vehicle and get them to safety.

“I’ve come to expect that kind of result when we use Justin and his team,” Lucas said. “They gave us a direction to focus our search. And the KML files the team provides can be downloaded directly into the search program for the helicopter.” The cellphone team overlays the likely search areas on Google Earth maps and provides that electronic (KML) file to searchers.

Snowmobiler Rescued in Idaho
Two days after Christmas, the team was involved in a search for a missing 25-year-old snowmobiler in Kootenai County, Idaho. The man had gone snowmobiling with friends in the evening but split up from the rest of the group around 1 a.m. local time and got lost.

This mission was assigned by the AFRCC just after 6 a.m. Dec. 27. Typically, once the team starts on a mission, at least a couple of hours are needed to request and receive the information from the cellphone service provider, analyze it and determine most likely areas for the search.

One initial step is to determine if the phone is on and then send a message indicating that search and rescue is trying to locate the phone’s owner. In this mission, about an hour after that message was sent at 6:27 a.m., the snowmobiler responded with a text message and shared a GPS location from his phone. Those GPS coordinates are the most accurate indication of the person’s location.

Ogden sent those coordinates to the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office along with a KML file, asking that the map be relayed to search teams in the field so searchers could use it to go directly to the location. Less than two hours later, the AFRCC was notified that the missing snowmobiler had been located and returned to safety.

The cellphone forensics team was credited by the AFRCC with another saved life in the mission, one of almost 340 search and rescue missions during the calendar year.