CAP’s cell phone forensics team reaches 1,000th ‘find’ milestone

  • Published
  • By National Headquarters Civil Air Patrol staff

Civil Air Patrol’s award-winning National Cell Phone Forensics Team achieved another major milestone with recording its 1,000th find of a lost or missing person on the way to its 656th life saved since the innovative technology was developed.

Civil Air Patrol, the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, conducts approximately 90 percent of all search operations within the United States as assigned by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center.

“Technology applications are woven into the DNA of the Air Force, and our Civil Air Patrol is no exception,” said Lt. Gen. Marc H. Sasseville, commander, Continental U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command Region-1st Air Force. “Our Air Force Rescue Coordination Center has a 24/7 hotline right into CAP so that we can get help to our citizens as quickly as possible.”

Since its inception in late 1941, CAP has traditionally performed search and rescue missions by operating the world’s largest fleet of single engine piston-powered aircraft.

As a technology innovator, CAP adapts, adopts and develops tools to make performing search and rescue and other emergency services missions more efficient. Leveraging tools like cell phone forensics and radar analysis make it faster and easier to help locate — find — the subject of a search even in situations when it is not possible to launch an aircraft due to poor flying conditions, remote locations, and more.

In CAP terms, a find is recorded when the team assists local searchers in locating a missing person — in the 1,000th case, a 29-year-old hiker was reported missing on the western slope of Colorado. A save occurs when the missing person, typically in a life-threatening situation, could not self-recover, and was delivered to a safe place alive.

 The Air Force auxiliary has been carrying out cell phone forensics missions for the AFRCC since 2006. CAP’s support began as a last-resort tool for locating missing persons and overdue aircraft but has evolved into a primary resource for search and rescue.

 “Technology has changed how we operate,” said John Desmarais, CAP’s director of operations. "What used to take days of laborious searching is now done remotely using technology to find more people and find them faster."

Cell phone data is often the first tool used in a search for a missing individual since most people carry their phone at all times. For example, three individuals who recently survived a plane crash in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts may not have survived until morning due to exposure to subfreezing temperatures. However, using cell phone forensics in conjunction with radar analysis, the location of the survivors was ascertained via cell phone within eight minutes and the three individuals were rescued in just 48 minutes.

Missing aircraft as well as lost and stranded hikers, snowmobilers, skiers and boaters have been found with the help of cell phone data. “It’s not just where the phone last was, but we can get a picture of a stream of events over time,” said CAP Maj. Justin Ogden, who built and improved the software the team uses to establish a “most likely area” for the search and rescue personnel.

“While most cellular carriers will provide a latitude and longitude, colloquially known as a ‘ping,’ the carriers don’t provide any further analysis or services past that,” said CAP Maj. Jerad Hoff, an analyst on the team. “Justin (Ogden) has processed and analyzed so many cases and with that unparalleled experience comes a trend analysis that leads him to sorting the good data from the bad faster than anyone else can.”

Before 2009, the AFRCC assigned about 2,000 missions a year to CAP, with searches for activated aircraft emergency locator transmitters dominating. In February 2009, the satellite system that monitored the old style 121.5-megahertz emergency beacons was turned off, and the annual mission count was reduced by at least half.

Since then, the cell phone team has contributed to a dramatic rise in the number of saved lives credited to CAP by the AFRCC. “We’re saving more lives and doing more missions in a cost-effective manner,” Desmarais said.

In fiscal 2018, CAP was credited with a modern record of 155 lives saved in a single year. Most of those saves — 147, or 95 percent — occurred with the support of the cell phone team.

The team conducted 373 missions during the fiscal year. CAP’s search and rescue total team effort, which also included the radar analysis team and state and locally based ground teams, carried out 1,044 missions overall.

In 2019, that number stood at 798 search and rescue missions.

Ogden and CAP Col. Brian Ready have been honored on numerous occasions for their efforts, most notably with the 2014 1st Air Force (AFNORTH) Commander’s Award, which was presented to both men in August 2015, and the 2010 National Aeronautic Association Public Benefit Flying Award in the Distinguished Volunteer category, which was presented to Ogden.

Last year, the four fully qualified cell phone forensics analysts on the team — Ogden, Ready, Hoff and CAP Maj. John Schofield — were recognized by the Arizona Wing with an Exceptional Service Award. The team has since added CAP Lt. Col. Vic LaSala as an analyst trainee and CAP Capt. Margot Myers as public information officer.