Cell Phone Forensicists Dial Up Results on Local, National SAR Missions

Cell Phone Forensicists Dial Up Results on Local, National SAR Missions

A Department of Public Safety Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopter conducts an aerial search near Finger Rock Trail. SAR teams are finding injured and/or missing people quicker thanks to cell phone forensics.

PHOENIX--Over the past decade or so, the cell phone has achieved basic necessity status, putting it in the same category as warmth, shelter, food and potable water. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of American adults report owning a cell phone. Aside from spelling dollar signs for wireless providers, the fact that so many Americans—Arizonans included—carry a cell phone just might save your life.


Col. Brian Ready, commander of the Arizona Wing (AZWG) of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), recently briefed the Arizona Division of Emergency Management (ADEM) on how CAP is using cell phone data to expedite Search and Rescue (SAR) missions nationwide. Cell phone forensics is a relatively new and specialized CAP capability that was science fiction up until the democratization of cell phones.


“Prior to cell phones, it could take several hours before a county sheriff was made aware of an injured or missing person,” said Chuck McHugh, Assistant Director of Operations at ADEM. “Cell phones have dramatically improved response times to SAR emergencies as people can—provided they have cell phone service—immediately report their problem and location. Cell phones and improved cell phone coverage have dramatically changed how counties and states, including Arizona, conduct SAR missions.”


Cell phone forensics is not an Arizona Wing program; it’s a national CAP program. It just so happens that three of the four people trained to do this type of work volunteer with AZWG. Consequently, all cell phone forensic requests of CAP are currently being worked by AZWG.


“The Civil Air Patrol has in recent years developed considerable expertise in cell phone forensics and are vital partners in successful SAR missions,” said Chuck McHugh. “The evidence obtained from cell phones can dramatically decrease the time required to find wilderness travelers in life threatening situations.”


The point of cell phone forensics, in layman’s terms, is to narrow the search area for SAR teams. Forensicists analyze real-time and historical cell phone data in search of information that an incident commander can use to focus a SAR search and, as a consequence, improve their chances of making a rescue.


In Arizona, the 15 county sheriff’s offices are statutorily responsible for the conduct of SAR missions. Roughly 600 SAR missions are conducted in the State of Arizona each year. These missions involve individuals who are lost, injured, stranded or deceased in inaccessible terrain.


ADEM plays a support role in county SAR missions and is the lead agency on searches for missing aircraft that span several counties or states. The State SAR Coordinator provides around the clock support to the county sheriffs. This support includes the mobilization of SAR assets, incident management assistance, mission expense reimbursement and training.


“The relationship between ADEM and CAP is critical to SAR mission success” said McHugh. “Arizona Wing volunteers have decades of SAR experience and high levels of expertise. They play a vital role in saving lives and reducing human suffering.”


The AZWG is headquartered at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz. Its missions are to educate CAP volunteers and the public on aerospace issues, supervise cadet programs for young people, and support emergency services (e.g., SAR) in the community.


For more information on the AZWG, visit their website at www.azwg.org