Using GIS to Help Locate Missing Persons

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Andy Berry, Vice President EMEA at Pitney Bowes Software, discusses the important role of geospatial data as applied by the New South Wales police in Australia, in Search and Rescue. 

The first 48 hours are critical in finding a person reported missing. Go beyond this time, and sadly the chances of finding someone fit and well begin to lessen. During this crucial time, the police and other agencies must painstakingly pull together details such as last known locations, actions and behaviours. Often working across separate districts, police and emergency services have a huge task ahead coordinating their search efforts and ensuring the right people have the right information, in the right place, at the right time, as quickly as possible. Now, police forces are using powerful geographic information systems to facilitate precise, coordinated, collaborative land search and rescue operations.

New South Wales Police is Australia’s oldest, and largest, police force, serving seven million people within an area spanning 801,600 square kilometers –  roughly double the combined geographical areas of England, Scotland and Wales, and similar in size to Texas1. The scale of this geography creates some major challenges for the force. The New South Wales Police Rescue and Bomb Disposal Unit provides round-the-clock emergency response for generate land and vertical rescue, bomb appraisal and disposal and coordination of land search and rescue operations. It also provides specialist support services such as access to dangerous and hard-to-reach places and crime scene searches.

Senior Constable Philip Downes is the Team Leader of the Hume Local Area Command Police Rescue Squad, and is responsible for coordinating land search operations for the Hume Local Area Command and surrounding NSW police region. “A job like a large search calls on a lot of resources, a lot of paperwork and a lot of data which is very difficult to manage” he says. When an alert comes in, says Constable Downes, “We might have some coordinates but need to know which police commander has ownership of that job, who is the closest and what’s the quickest way to get there, so we can rapidly deploy someone to that location with the right information with precision and accuracy at the very first instance”.

Accurate data capture is key

Identifying and capturing the Last Known Position (LKP) of the missing person is imperative. “Quite often we receive a phone call from the next of kin to report their loved one missing, and they provide whatever information they can about when they were last seen” says Constable Downes. He continues, “Sometimes the missing person themselves activates a distress beacon which provides us with a latitude/longitude coordinate, and sometimes they make a call from their mobile phone to report that they are lost. They describe where they are, or where they think they are. That could be the intersection of two gullies, or the description of a road or a creek. Other times we have no information at all apart from an apparent LKP and the fact that the person is missing, presumably lost and possibly injured in the wilderness”.

When it comes to coordinating and planning search missions, the Rescue Squad must collate all relevant information quickly and effectively. “Before we deploy the search teams into the field we need to capture and collate all relevant information so that we hit the target as soon as possible once deployed,” says Senior Constable Downes. “Information comes from a variety of sources and in different formats. “It is vital that we identify the location accurately as it may mean the difference between searching at the top of a cliff versus the bottom. If we need to abseil down a cliff to reach someone at the bottom, we know what equipment and personnel to send into the field”.

Data from multiple sources on one accessible platform

Senior Constable Downes’ Rescue Squad uses a GIS platform to collate the data. Pitney Bowes was engaged to build the platform to operate in the field which corroborates the data, from taking the initial call to providing evidence in court or a report to the coroner, if that is sadly the outcome. The user sees the following four tabs:

  • Find Location: this enables the coordinator to find a location by entering an address, UBD reference, a geographic feature, or latitude/longitude co-ordinate
  • Search and Rescue operation: this allows for tasks to be tracked and coordinated with other teams here – users can enter the details of the operation including last known position and includes external links such as weather data, drawing tools such as polygon, ring and buffers around tracks to manage search areas The mobile phone signal area can be displayed to triangulate and focus the search
  • Tools: a Probability of Detection (POD) and a dispersion tool for grid-bearing and distance calculations
  • Projects: all projects from around the state are stored here so teams can track the progress of a search, or a back-up team can review the information before arriving on scene. This is also used for training purposes.

The Squad’s dedicated land search and rescue tool, PolSAR, connects to the platform. Disparate data sets are pulled together across different sources in a clear and consistent style. “By digitalising all the data into technology on a GIS platform, we can capture all the information and use it to recall where search teams have and haven’t been. We can use it to print professional maps for search teams.”

Smartphones or sat nav devices can provide search teams with vital positional coordinate data, such as latitude/longitude, MGRS and UTM, from which to begin their search. Search teams also carry devices to capture the paths they have already covered. The GIS system is able to download this data and overlay it with other maps to enable air and ground search teams to maximise their search efforts and uncover where to look next. Other information such as missing persons behaviour data which is categorised and based on Australian real case statistics, is accurately plotted and overlaid on maps to provide police rescue search coordinators with the information they need to start the search in the best and most probable location.

Simplicity and accuracy

All police land search coordinators have access to the system. “It gives police search coordinators who are not trained in GIS the ability to control, manage and coordinate a land search operation,” says Constable Downes. He continues, “We can plot the last known position on a topographical map which is GIS-based, and use all types of data relating to the missing person to build information on areas where we should and shouldn’t search”.  Based on this, he says, the team can accurately coordinate a land search, send out the correct people and maintain positional accuracy.


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Close collaboration between the NSW Police Rescue Squad and other emergency services agencies such as NSW Ambulance Service, NSW State Emergency Service, Rural Fire Service, Volunteer Rescue Association and National Parks and Wildlife Service is required to ensure the best possible outcome. Agencies are need to share information and data with each other quickly and easily.

“Having a single point of truth for all our mapping data and being able to easily output that information ensures seamless collaboration with other agencies”, says Senior Constable Downes. “PolSAR, which is based on Pitney Bowes technology, is our one-stop shop for all mapping and location-based information. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to perform our search and rescue missions in an efficient and timely manner”.

1 Source: statistics from http://www.police.nsw.gov.au/about_us

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