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CAP cell phone expert helps find missing North Dakota students

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Though there was a tragic outcome to the search for three missing Dickinson State University students in North Dakota this week, the case points out how a cell phone can be used to locate missing people, many times with happier results. One of the pioneers in cell phone forensics is Justin Ogden, a captain in the Civil Air Patrol’s Arizona Wing, whose expertise pinpointed the North Dakota students’ crash site within 730 feet based on information he gleaned from their last cell phone hit.


In a phone conversation with Lt. Col. William E. Kay, director of operations for CAP’s North Dakota Wing, the emergency manager for Stark County where the ground search was conducted, Brent Pringle, stated the students’ vehicle would not have been found without CAP’s assistance. Although CAP had aircrews from Dickinson and Bismarck on the scene with a ground team standing by, it was Ogden’s work conducted from a distance that yielded results. Ogden helped search and rescue controllers from the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) refine the search area down significantly from a mile-and-a-half radius to within 730 feet from where the students were finally located.


Under federal law, cell phone companies can voluntarily divulge the cell phone data to federal agencies such as the AFRCC when it is being used for lifesaving purposes involving the owner.


Ogden, 28, collects and analyzes data to determine approximate coordinates. “Even if a cell phone is not being used but is still powered up, and within coverage of the network, we can often receive enough information to allow us to concentrate the search in the right area,” he said.


Sometimes cell phone data is merged with other information, such as radar if the search is for a missing aircraft.


According to Ogden, nearly all cell phones and networks have some sort of location sensing methods, whether through GPS (global position system) hardware in the cell phone or through the phone network and towers. With the technology already in place, it is important, he said, to get a cell phone forensic specialist involved early in a search. “Once the cell phone battery dies, there’s no hope of getting GPS type coordinates from that phone,” he said.


Ogden, employed by General Dynamics and recently assigned to a new project to develop a nationwide communications system for the Department of Justice, became interested in radio signals and computer programming when he joined CAP at the age of 12 as a cadet. Now as a senior member in CAP, he is routinely called in by the AFRCC to help with searches. Last year he participated in 27 search and rescue missions, resulting in the rescue of 19 survivors.

As the United States' inland search and rescue coordinator, the AFRCC serves as the single agency responsible for coordinating federal search and rescue activities in the 48 contiguous United States.

The AFRCC, a unit under Air Forces Northern, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The center directly ties in to the FAA's alerting system and the U.S. Mission Control Center. In addition to Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking information, the AFRCC computer system contains resource files that list federal and state organizations which can conduct or assist in SAR efforts throughout North America.