Civil Air Patrol

Major Milestone for Civil Air Patrol’s Cell Phone Forensics Team: 1,000th ‘Find’ Credited by Air Force Rescue Coordination Center

Civil Air Patrol’s award-winning, Arizona-based National Cell Phone Forensics Team achieved another major milestone, recording its 1,000th find of a lost or missing person on the way to its 659th life saved since the innovative technology was developed.

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

“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.”

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 team – all members of the CAP’s Arizona Wing – has carried 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, the team worked with emergency management officials to help locate a Chandler-based airplane that crashed near Elko, Nevada, recently.

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 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 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.”

The cell phone team has contributed to a dramatic rise in the number of saved lives credited to CAP by the AFRCC, now totaling 659 saves in its 14-year existence. “We’re saving more lives and doing more missions in a cost-effective manner,” Desmarais said.

Team members Ogden and 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 Maj. John Schofield — were recognized by the Arizona Wing with an Exceptional Service Award. The team has since added Lt. Col. Vic LaSala as an analyst trainee and Capt. Margot Myers as public information officer.

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