Tool may help find missing people in Colorado’s backcountry within minutes

A Durango-based helicopter company is testing a new tool that could help search and rescue teams in helicopters detect missing and distressed people in Colorado’s backcountry within minutes and communicate with them, even if they are stuck in an area without cellphone service.

The technology, akin to a miniature cellphone tower, attaches to the outside of a helicopter and allows searchers to pinpoint the locations of any cellphones within a 3-mile radius using a map on a tablet, Dr. Tim Durkin, a search and rescue program coordinator for Colorado Highland Helicopters. 

“As we detect the phone, basically a blotch shows up on the map and as we fly around that area, that blotch gets smaller and smaller and smaller until we can see exactly where they are,” Durkin said. 

“That process of detecting, focusing on one specific location takes about a minute — not really very long at all.”

Depending on the situation, search and rescue teams can then send in ground crews with the person’s location or land the helicopter if there’s a clearing nearby and conditions allow for a safe landing, Durkin said. 

During a test mission in La Plata Canyon northwest of Durango, search crews found the two people they were looking for within two minutes and 14 seconds, Durkin said. 

The technology, called Lifeseeker, was developed by Spain-based company CENTUM research & technology and is in the process of being approved by the Federal Communications Commission before it can be sold to the state or counties hoping to use it for their SAR efforts, he said. 

La Plata Canyon is bordered by several 12,000- and 13,000-foot peaks on either side with a dense forest at the bottom. There have been several high-profile search and rescue missions to look for missing hikers and ultrarunners in the remote, mountainous area. 

The rugged terrain, similar to many areas of Colorado, makes it extremely challenging for searchers to spot people from the air or ground. Some missions in the past lasted weeks before searchers called off ground missions without finding the person they were looking for. 

“Even two grown adults standing under the tree cover there, even when we can look on the screen and say, ‘we know exactly where they are,’ and we’re orbiting 100 feet off the trees in a helicopter, you can’t see them because the tree cover is that dense,” Durkin, an emergency medicine doctor said.

“Trying to find a person without some adjunct technology to see them is really quite, quite difficult, if not nearly impossible.”

It takes about three minutes to install a Lifeseeker unit inside a helicopter for a search and rescue mission, said Dr. Tim Durkin, a search and rescue program coordinator for Colorado Highland Helicopters. (Photo courtesy of Tim Durkin)

The radio-based technology needs a clear view of the terrain without interference to pick up the signal of the cellphone. If the conditions and terrain are favorable, it can detect a cellphone up to nearly 20 miles away.

It takes about three minutes to attach the Lifeseeker unit inside a helicopter when needed for a search and rescue mission, Durkin said. 

SAR can also use the tool to send text messages to the missing person, for example, advising them to stay in one area if they are hurt or move to a clearing for a helicopter to pick them up.

The tool also has a broadcast function that allows SAR to send out a message to a group of people within a certain range, similar to an Amber Alert for a missing child, to warn them of a wildfire or flood, Durkin said. 

The new technology could be another life-saving tool for the roughly 2,500 search and rescue volunteers around the state who respond to calls from distressed people in the backcountry, said Jeff Sparhawk, the executive director for the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, which represents the state’s teams that operate under county sheriffs. 

Finding a person with dementia or a missing child without a cellphone, for example, may require a different approach from a search for a missing hiker last seen on the windy summit of a 14,000-foot peak. 

Airborne rescuers use a variety of technology to search for people, like high-resolution video that is filtered through software that can identify colors not typically seen in nature, like royal blue. SAR also has access to the state’s airplanes that use infrared sensors to detect temperature differences on the ground.

Even so, search and rescue teams’ success rate searching visually from helicopters is not very high, Sparhawk said. 

“Searching in our valleys, in our mountains, it just is very, very difficult. It is also difficult when people are wearing muted colors — to find somebody wearing gray amongst 10 billion gray rocks is really hard,” he said. 

The Lifeseeker technology could make a huge difference for searchers looking for someone in an area outside of cellphone range, but only if the person’s phone has power, Sparhawk said.

“It’s a balancing act. From our perspective, cellphone batteries are a concern for us — if somebody goes for a hike, we’ve been teaching people to turn your phone off, put it in airplane mode or preserve the battery however you can. Typically that means disconnecting from the network,” Sparhawk said.

“So if they’re preserving their cellphone battery, and they don’t hear a helicopter and they don’t turn it back on, it’s not going to make a difference for them. But obviously, if they get lost, they need to turn their cellphone on and try to get into coverage,” he said.

A task force designed to better support search and rescue operations across the state listed improving field communications as a way to keep rescuers in the backcountry without passing any costs on to those who call for help. 

The three T’s

Trip planning: Leave a detailed plan with someone at home, including the trailhead where you’ll be parking, your intended route, your intended destination, who is with you and what time you’ll be expected to be back. If you haven’t returned home within a reasonable time given your plan, the person should call 911 to report you overdue.
Training: Make sure you have the skill, ability, experience and physical conditioning for the adventure you’re planning.
Take the essentials: Carry the 10 essentials plus any sport-specific equipment you may need. 

The 111-page report published in 2022 recommended providing sheriffs and backcountry search and rescue teams with funding to purchase and improve communication technologies, as well as studying the value of helicopters dedicated to rescue needs.

Many of the search and rescue teams across the state have been overwhelmed with a dramatic increase in calls in the past several years.

“How successful our tourism industry has been is a blessing and a curse for us,” Sparhawk said. “We support the tourism economy to the degree that we can and don’t want to harm that at all, but I think that the increase in population and the increase in tourism just makes us really, really busy.”

Most calls come in during the summer, while winter missions typically take more energy, requiring searchers to go into precarious avalanche-prone terrain, he said.

Colorado Search and Rescue advises people to recreate in the backcountry as safely as possible, by following the three T’s: trip planning, training and taking the essentials.

“Most people go out on an adventure, not expecting to need help, of course, and so they’re gonna go enjoy their day. They should do that,” Sparhawk said. “This is the what-if situation that not everybody thinks about.”


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