It's 7am on a Saturday when volunteers from Tauranga Land Search and Rescue (TSAR) start looking for two hunters missing in the Kaimais. One is a 68-year-old man with early-onset Alzheimer's. His male companion is 35 years old. They were last seen near Thompson's Track.
TSAR search manager Craig Murray says volunteers at the police station, where 48 Hours watches the operation, have been listening to intelligence via radio.
"We've found clues on the track and have a confirmed direction of travel. We have two sets of field teams in play; one from the Waikato side of Thompson's Track and we've deployed teams from this side."
The scenario is fiction, part of a biannual exercise. But the tools and drill are real. Volunteers are practising with a new tool called SARTrack. The free computer software program developed in Central Otago augments the old paper map, compass and GPS search system. SARTrack uses GPS radio tracking to pinpoint searchers live in the field.
Craig says the Tauranga group has been using SARTrack six months, though he's been learning the system for two years. He also helps train groups throughout New Zealand.
TSAR field teams are equipped with GPS radios, and repeaters can be set up to expand coverage. Craig points to a large map projected on a wall inside the search and rescue communications hub at the cop shop. "We know where they are on the map. As they move through the terrain, they can push an orange button and tell us where they are, or we can request where they are."
Craig says the system is more efficient than the old method, where searchers needed to stop and find their position on a topographical map using a compass, then radio information to an operations centre.
The software incorporates data from the cornerstone of search and rescue, a book called Lost Person Behavior. The manual is based on more than 50,000 global search-and-rescue incident statistics. It includes behavioural profiles of everyone from very young children to very old people.
You can learn a hell of a lot by the debrief at the end of each operation and also you can reply the whole operation in a few minutes and see when things were deployed.
"We feed in as much intelligence about the lost party from the next of kin or last person they were seen with. Based on that information, it gives us an area ... It doesn't tell us they will be there, but it means we can focus our resources in the area where there's the highest probability of finding them."
Craig says TSAR used SARTrack during an incident in late August when a runner was reported missing in the bush near Whakamarama. The 42-year-old had set off on a track on the western side of the Kaimais around 11am. Police say she mistook an old tramway track for the main track and got separated from her family, who called authorities.
Working with police (who oversee lost persons searches), Craig says volunteers fed information into SARTrack software, which recommended a search area.
Volunteers on the ground found their target - safe and sound - around 6pm. "We knew the runner had a light pack with some food ... field teams will call up and say we've found a wrapper on this track in this position. Then, on a map, we'll create a waypoint and put in clues. It gives the planning intelligence team the best information and the best decision-making possible." Teams can also incorporate leads such as footprints - field teams take digital scans, which provide a shoe size and tread pattern. It all becomes part of the search database.
Senior Constable Jennie Wright is search and rescue incident co-ordinator for Tauranga police during this exercise. She says though SARTrack is still being tested throughout the country, it's proven useful so far. "As we can have immediate access as to where our field teams are - areas they have covered and searched. It also highlights areas they have overlooked or missed out."
Volunteer planning intelligence manager Mark Noack says the new software system removes about 90 per cent of errors; it's faster than manually entering data; and it allows managers to provide input on a search from anywhere in the world.
When we do a changeover, the information stays constant, as opposed to a big pile of paper sitting here on the desk.
Craig says in rare cases when a search target has died, a coroner can easily look at a timeline using SARTrack data. "The coroner can say, 'Why did it take them 40 minutes ... to get the helicopter up in the air?' You can learn a hell of a lot by the debrief at the end of each operation, and also you can replay the whole operation in a few minutes and see when things were deployed."
About two dozen Tauranga search and rescue volunteers spent most of the weekend at the exercise, either in the bush or police station. More than 40 people in the Western Bay have committed to training and callouts required as part of volunteer search and rescue.
Craig says it's a huge undertaking. "You might get home at eight o'clock at night and get a call to say there's a search. So you grab your bag and go where you've got to go. From Tauranga LandSAR's perspective, we're the quiet achievers, as are groups nationwide. We don't do it for the limelight. We do it for the safe recovery of the lost party."
Tauranga Search and Rescue
*There are 40+ trained volunteers that provide search and rescue services to police, public and international visitors that require their services
*They look after suburban, urban, wilderness, rural and coastal operations
*Volunteers are often called for help with searches for Alzheimer's and dementia patients
*The service receives support from local organisations such as Rotary clubs and businesses like Fonterra (Grass Roots Fund)
*It is not formally appointed by NZSAR as an incident management tool
*It is used by six to eight search and rescue groups in New Zealand, as well as groups in the US and Canada
*It may work in areas where cellular or satellite coverage is either unreliable or too expensive
*The tool works with different brands of radios
*SARTrack software (New Zealand and international versions) is free