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Mobile Telephones for Search and Rescue

This is a suggestion that could greatly increase the effectiveness of search and rescue operations. The suggestion was made by letter to Parks Victoria in February 2008 (text slightly modified).


These days most people have mobile phones. Mobile phones are effectively little radio transmitters and receivers, which if able to be used would be most effective for locating lost bushwalkers. This has has been illustrated on a number of occasions where lost bushwalkers who were still within a mobile phone reception area have talked to police and/or sent a photo of their surrounds to the search and rescue organisation. However currently the mobile phone does not help bushwalkers if they are not in an area that is covered by mobile phone reception.

While it would be ideal I understand that that it would not be economically viable to have normal mobile phone reception in all areas where bushwalkers like to walk. Therefore my suggestion is that search and rescue organisations obtain / have developed a portable mobile phone reception transmission units ("the unit") which would allow direct contact to mobile telephones outside regular mobile service areas. When a search and rescue situation is required the unit could be brought to an area where the lost bushwalkers are which may enable direct communications with the lost bushwalkers.

The scenario that I would envisage would be that the bushwalker would be reported late returning from their walk by their relatives etc. The family contact would inform the search and rescue organisation of the mobile phone number/s of the bushwalkers (or they could be obtained from the carriers). After the appropriate period of time the search could begin. As well as mobilising the search and rescue personnel one of the mobile transmission units could be sent to the general area where the bushwalker is. It could be transported in a four wheel drive to a high point in the area and communications attempted. It could be preferable that the mobile unit be mounted in a helicopter which would allow sweeping of vast areas quickly. If the units are cheap enough they could be spread around the state, if expensive they would come from centralised area/s.

I am not a telecommunications expert so the technical feasibility is not known. Areas to be taken account of would be the number of different carriers - the units would need to be able to work with all carriers' mobile phones and their agreement would need to be obtained. There would be no need for the unit to connect with the rest of the network. Also it would be most helpful if the unit had a directional indicator to indicate the direction of the lost bushwalker's mobile phone. Some education would need to occur into the bushwalker community that this may be available, so they take their phone with them, do not flatten their battery, realise it is not available as a normal phone service and that the service could only become available after they have been missing for a significant period. There would be a number of other details to be worked out. Development costs and protocols could be shared across all States.

It could not replace normal search and rescue in all situations - bushwalkers are not always going to take their mobile phones, or they would have flat batteries or they could be injured or separated from their phone or not be aware of the possibility. Some search and rescue "clients" are children or disabled so may not have access to a mobile phone. But if it works it could save days of search and rescue or be the difference between a successful search and an unsuccessful search.


I have received a preliminary response from Parks Victoria. They said that nothing like this was available at present, however the suggestion was not rejected out of hand, they seemed to think it was worth looking at. They said that the Victoria Police was the authority with responsibility for search and rescue in Victoria (I should have known that!) and they would discuss it with that organisation.


I have received a response from police search and rescue (June 2008). They indicated that they already have this technology available. That is great however it surprises me that I have not heard about it previously. There has been a number of occasions when I have been going on a bushwalk and have left the mobile phone in the car because the walk wasn't in a mobile reception area. It could have been a costly mistake. I now know better and will endeavour to carry it in the future. I am sure that, like me, the majority of people are unaware of the availability of the technology, including Parks Victoria!. The police (and other authorities) should advertise it more widely so more people will carry their phones when on bush walks (although I can foresee that there may be a problem to ensure bush walkers do not think it is available as a standard phone service). The other issue may be that this type of technology (depending on how it is set up) could be used by police for purposes other than search and rescue - which may bring up privacy issues. Consequently there needs to be rules regarding the appropriate use of the technology.


Update - August 2018

It has been over 10 years since I first wrote about this. In that time I have never heard about the successful (or unsuccessful) use of the "Telstra people finder unit" in search and rescue - as referred to in the police search and rescue letter of 11 June 2008. This I find really strange. You would think if this technology was available it should be made known to the bush walking community as well as other more casual people who enjoy getting out in the bush or other wilderness areas - yet I have heard nothing. I did a Google search on the "Telstra people finder" and found this webpage from Nextgis. (Archived Version - 1 Aug 2018).  This website indicates that the Peoplefinder is "an experimental hardware & software system that can search for mobile devices using its own GSM network and show their locations on a map". It also says that the Peoplefinder was instigated by the Australian telecommunications company Telstra for search and rescue purposes. As Telstra - a telecommunications company - do not do search and rescue themselves it must ultimately be for the police. The website gives the impression that the system is still in development which is strange as I have a letter from the Victorian Police saying that they were already using a system they called the "Telstra people finder" for live searches back in 2008. All I can think of is that what the police were using was an earlier model of what is shown on this website or a version from a different company. But again this raises the issue of why haven't I heard of it in use. You would think if there was a successful search and rescue it would be referenced in press reports of the search.

A concerning feature of the "new" Peoplefinder is the seeming ability to track people's mobile phone - and therefore track the phone's owner. I expressed concerns about this in the earlier post about this system and the possibility that it could be used for activities other than search and rescue - such as surveillance or finding people who do not consider themselves to be lost. Note that the maps shown on the Nextgis website used to show the ability of the system to locate people show maps of urban areas rather than bush / wilderness areas. This functionality of the new system is open to abuse of a person's privacy. It is not known whether the original "Telstra people finder" unit that the police said that they had also has this functionality. Due to the privacy implications of this tracking functionality its use by police and any other organisation or person must be properly regulated. Are these regulations in place? I don't know but I doubt it.

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