TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
Civil Air Patrol finished fiscal 2020 with 130 lives saved, making it one of the most productive years ever for the U.S. Air Force auxiliary’s search and rescue efforts.
“This is a top-five-of-all-time save year for us,” said John Desmarais, CAP’s director of operations. The 130 lives saved in 2020 ranks fifth behind fiscal 2018 (a record 158 saves), 1983 and 1994 (both with 154 saves) and 1986 (with 136 saves).
Civil Air Patrol, in its role as the Air Force auxiliary, conducts about 90% of all search operations within the contiguous United States as assigned by Air Forces Northern’s Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC).
“Through advances in location technology, CAP is able to narrow large search areas and focus efforts, saving the rescue teams valuable time in finding a missing person,” said Lt. Gen. Kirk Pierce, commander, 1st AF (AFNORTH). “These highly dedicated civil volunteers are on call 24/7. Civil Air Patrol is a national asset we rely on almost every day of the year.”
Fiscal 2020 also marked the fourth consecutive year CAP has exceeded the century mark in lives saved. That streak started in 2018 when saves totaled 158, the high mark for a single year. In 2019 and 2017, CAP was credited with 117 and 110 saves, respectively, by the AFRCC and the Joint Rescue Coordination Centers in Alaska and Hawaii.
“What a wonderful way to end our year!” said Maj. Gen. Mark Smith, CAP national commander and CEO. “All volunteer humanitarian service is meaningful, but the simple fact is that 130 people, 515 over the past four years alone, were rescued from life-threatening situations due to the selfless, vigilant efforts of CAP volunteers.”
He continued, “And in many cases, a life was saved as the direct result of technology developed by fellow CAP members.”
Desmarais said the recent triple-digit saves trend reflects CAP’s innovative technology advances in cellphone forensics and radar analysis.
“Technology has really changed how we operate,” Desmarais said. “What once took days of laborious searching is now done remotely using our cellphone forensics and radar analysis.”
The CAP teams often work in concert, he said, but it's the cellphone team that almost always gets the call from AFRCC.
“Leveraging such tools has enabled CAP to be even more efficient in finding those who are lost or unaccounted for,” he said. “These tools, developed and enhanced by our members, make it faster and easier to find people, planes and boats, even in situations where it is not possible to launch our aircraft due to poor flying conditions, remote locations or other factors.”
Civil Air Patrol has been carrying out cellphone forensics missions for the AFRCC since 2006. Its support began as software developed by a member as a last-resort tool for locating missing persons and overdue aircraft, but it has evolved into a primary resource for finding missing aircraft as well as lost and stranded motorists, hikers, snowmobilers, skiers and boaters.
CAP’s National Cell Phone Forensics Team achieved a milestone of its own in April, recording its 1,000th find. 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 reported missing on the western slope of Colorado. A save occurs when the missing person, typically in a life-threatening situation, is delivered to a safe place alive.
Since its inception in late 1941, CAP has traditionally performed search and rescue missions with the world’s largest fleet of single-engine piston-powered aircraft to search for missing people and overdue aircraft. Its ground teams are also renowned for their search and rescue capabilities.
That job has been made easier by CAP’s cellphone team and the National Radar Analysis Team.
“More than 90% of our saves occur with the support of the cellphone team,” Desmarais said. Cellphone data is often used first in a search for a missing individual since most people carry their phone at all times, he said.
For example, a 39-year-old man who fell into the subfreezing Hoh River in northwestern Washington state was rescued in January. Twenty minutes after the cellphone team was alerted, the man clicked on a message the message sent to his phone, providing a location with 12-meter accuracy. Local search and rescue officials quickly found him at the coordinates, which turned out to be 4½ miles away from the initial location provided by the cellular carrier.
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter carried out the rescue, as ground teams were having trouble reaching the site. “The data the team provided led the helo right to the subject, and it really saved his life,” Desmarais said shortly after the rescue.
“Our team was told he was extremely hypothermic with more than 24 inches of snow on the ground, and he had fallen in a river,” Desmarais said.
“The cellphone team’s quick work saved this man’s life for sure. They got what was needed with just a few minutes to spare.”