Dawn is a reporter for the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend.

Big read: New tech tool for search and rescue

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J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, "Not all those who wander are lost." But if you find yourself disoriented in the bush, local volunteers are ready to help. 48 Hours reporter Dawn Picken learned how search and rescue teams combine new technology with old-fashioned bush craft to answer the question: where are they?
LandSAR and the Police Search and Rescue team running a weekend training exercise with Robert Taylor, right, and Craig Murray. Photo/file
LandSAR and the Police Search and Rescue team running a weekend training exercise with Robert Taylor, right, and Craig Murray. Photo/file

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 programme 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.

Search manager Craig Murray says a new computer software management system called SARTrack can help volunteer teams find lost people more efficiently than before. PHOTO/ANDREW WARNER
Search manager Craig Murray says a new computer software management system called SARTrack can help volunteer teams find lost people more efficiently than before. PHOTO/ANDREW WARNER

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.

"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."

Those resources can include helicopters for air operations, and boats, for searches by sea.

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 way point 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 - a digital puzzle ready for assembly.

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."

Tauranga Police Senior Constable Jennie Wright oversees a volunteer search and rescue training exercise - providing intelligence, plus operational and material support to searches.
Tauranga Police Senior Constable Jennie Wright oversees a volunteer search and rescue training exercise - providing intelligence, plus operational and material support to searches.

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 Murray 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 at the police station.

More than 40 people in the Western Bay have committed to training and call outs 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

-40+ trained volunteers provide search and rescue services to police, public and international visitors that require their services

-Operate suburban, urban, wilderness, rural, coastal operations

-Often called for help with searches for Alzheimer's and dementia patients

-Receives support from local organisations such as Rotary clubs and businesses like Fonterra (Grass Roots Fund)

www.tsar.org.nz

About SARTrack

-Not formally appointed by NZSAR as an incident management tool

-Used by 6-8 SAR groups in NZ, as well as groups in the US and Canada

-May work in areas where cellular or satellite coverage is either unreliable or too expensive

-Works with different brands of radios

-SARTrack software (NZ and international versions) is free

www.sartrack.co.nz

Rotorua Search and Rescue

Rotorua Detective Senior Sergeant John Wilson has been police commander of the local search and rescue team for 16 years.

Rotorua Police Detective Senior Sergeant John Wilson says the area's volume of lost parties gives search and rescue volunteers lots of practice. Photo/file
Rotorua Police Detective Senior Sergeant John Wilson says the area's volume of lost parties gives search and rescue volunteers lots of practice. Photo/file

He's giving up his police role with the group (due to a promotion) but is staying on as a volunteer. Mr Wilson says Rotorua SAR will consider the SARTrack system, but for now is satisfied with satellite phones.

"We can deploy someone in the middle of the night without having to set up any radio infrastructure. You need to fly a repeater to a high point if you're using radios."

The group has purchased four satellite phones, allowing four teams to enter the field immediately.

"One of the reasons SARTrack may not be as embraced here ... we've got a significantly larger area we cover compared to the Western Bay."

The Rotorua territory includes the Southern Te Urewera ranges, Mamakus and Paeroa ranges.

Mr Wilson says around 50 volunteers log 70 to 90 search jobs each year, looking for locals and tourists, young and old. He says a search just over a week ago resulted in the safe homecoming of two mountain bikers delayed by snow in the Whirinaki Forest Park.

"We managed to get a chopper to drop a team off behind them and another team came from another direction, and we got them in the middle."

He says the average time for a search is around six hours.

"...because we nip it in the bud. As soon as something gets reported, we deal with it. It used to be the attitude we'll leave it and let people sort it out. But in this risk-averse age ... we don't deal with it in that manner anymore."

He says even experienced outdoors men and women who take precautions make mistakes and have accidents. When they do, Mr Wilson says SAR volunteers are ready.

"Often the weather's lousy and they turn out with big smiles and they go into the bush and find people and sometimes they save people's lives. You can't get better than that."

• The Rotorua SAR group has a training exercise set for the weekend of October 14th. To connect with the local group, visit www.landsar.org.nz

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