Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Mountain incidents, Police involvement in location from mobile signals.

Following the last blog on this subject published on 11th January 2013, it seems to have been well received and I am pleased on a number of favourable comments from mountain rescue teams. Having been retired as a communications centre inspector or F.I.M.(Force incident manager) in Cumbria for nine months and beginning to use social websites for this time, it became apparent there was a great lack of knowledge on the process of a rescue, especially police involvement. A greater understanding of this process can only increase mountain safety and to that end here goes.
 I touched on the initial call being directed to the police not the mountain rescue team in :- http://scafellhike.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/police-involvement-in-moutain-rescues.html?showComment=1358088676679#!/2013/01/police-involvement-in-moutain-rescues.html If you are new to this blog then this is a supplement to the one above so read that first.
 All telephone calls to the police are recorded, they need to be for evidence purposes, but this has the benefit for rescues in that if the operator doesn't understand location they can be played back to someone who does, helping to identify the location, which is paramount. I've said it in the last blog and I will repeat that location is everything. Let us look at when a location is not known, i.e.
a) the person is lost
b) or no contact has been made following them ringing a family member
c) They give a location for a rescue and on attendance they are not there
d) a phone signal drops out and no recontact can or has been made.
There will be other reasons but you get the point by now.

Following my retirement excellent work has been done by Russ Hore of Ogwen Valley MROT(Mountain rescue team) on a system he has named as SARLOC (Search and Rescue Location). As I understand this it is a system where on smartphones through a text sent by the MRT the caller can then give permission through that text by return, for the phone to identify it's GPS location and on return the MRT can then know the location. For full reading and interpretation read:- http://www.mountain.rescue.org.uk/assets/files/The%20Oracle/Communications/SARLOC.pdf Russ and his team should recieve plaudits for the work done here as it truly is a major step in safeguarding life through speedy and safer resolution of rescue incidents.

Moving back to police issues, as this text needs to be sent, this means that contrary to a common belief by the public, the initial call does not give the information in it's own right. I say here and now that in four years as a comms inspector I never had an incident where a map reference was ever given by a phone call. Map references are either given by the caller or worked out by the operator and/or MRT for the area on the description given by the caller. The map reference on a police log is of the mast which the call went to and this can be 20miles away, indeed further. SARLOC cannot be used every time, as it needs recontact by text and the person may by now be unconscious, or they rang 999 and as touched on the previous blog that may have been via a different network provider mast, the mobile may not be appropriate for SARLOC use, i.e. not a smartphone. Your best safeguard in any incident is an accurate description from you and the route you took and what you know you have passed, i.e. Mickledore MRT stretcher box.
 Where this contact cannot be made the MRT team will request of the police that their initial call be traced through the mobile company and there are five stages to this.
1) MRT contact the comms inspector to request a cellsite analysis be done
2) The comms inspector decides whether this falls into a category of 'immediate life at risk incident'(This is accessing personal information hence the immediate life at risk).
3) If he/she does so decide, then a SPOC(Single point of contact - for network providers)  is contacted, a specialist within the police.
4)The SPOC then contacts an on call superintendent.
5) If the Superintendent agrees only then can the call be made to the network provider.

This sounds long winded but it takes about 10minutes as a process to go through and it is not a police procedural issue but one enshrined in law for the correct protection of the public's privacy and there is nothing the police can do to shortcut it, nothing!, nor would I have ever wanted to. The important issue here is the phrase 'immediate life at risk incident'. Do not be embarrassed on contact and start saying I'm lost but I'm OK, warm with adequate clothing, food and a hot drink, when really you've rang because the night is setting in and you know you won't see it out with what you've got to wear and eat. It's an easy decision when someone is unconscious having fallen 30ft and suffering fractures when a signal is lost, the circumstances speak for themselves.
 Having covered the circumstances where phones can be accessed, don't think the police then have a map reference to find you off. Different network providers have different systems for giving a general area where the signal originated, or that was the case up to when I retired and having spoken to former colleagues recently I do not believe this to have changed. In four years the best result I ever had was two men, one injured with a fractured/dislocated shoulder heading to Wasdale via Mickledore, from Scafell Pike summit. I managed to speak to the caller who, when asked, had not passed the MRT stretcher box(they should have on this intended route off). Having entered this on the log, no further contact could be made with them while they waited patiently for MRT arrival. It was night and freezing and deemed to be immediate life at risk and after discussion with MRT a call to the SPOC was made, a Superintendents authority duly given, the SPOC contacted the network provider who stated the signal had came off a mast at Barrow in Furness. This couldn't happen if they were en route to Wasdale, it was on the other side of the fell. The MRT deployed to the south side and found them en route down to The Great Moss; they had made a navigational error of 180degrees. That is the best result I had and it is clearly NOT a map reference. The analysis is just another factor in a body of information that an enquiring mind with MRT experience, coupled with local knowledge, can make a judgement.
 The worst location incident was at Alston looking for a vulnerable missing person believed intent on self harm where the signal analysis was somewhere within a 12mile radius of the mast in Alston and that was it! This person was also found BUT that also is not a map reference. Both incidents were resolved by interpretation of the signal and use of commonsense. The first by suspecting they were in the wrong area given and the second by then hunting the local car parks and lanes for the car the person had used, thus narrowing the search area.
 I hope these incidents bring home the point that your initial mobile call does not give a map reference, so take time to describe where you are, where you set off from(and the time you did) and what features you know you have passed. Give a map reference, everyone should carry a GPS as these days their cost is minimal and I carry one purely to inform on location on an emergency call.

Finally a couple of points that I here re leaving information. People say 'You used to be able to leave a note on the dashboard saying where you have gone but with crime now I wouldn't'. Well, DO if you change your location at the last minute and can't inform anyone, but leave it in your glove compartment. Where a  person has been reported late back the police will check locations to find a car. If they are satisfied a life is at risk, i.e. the person should have been home 5hrs ago and their wife has expressed concern, then the police will force entry into that car for any clue as to where they are. A life is at risk here, a car window means nothing. A man was reported missing once who stayed in a cottage and hadn't contacted his family. The MRT couldn't turn out as you can't check the whole of the lake district. The door was forced at the premises he was stopping at and one map was missing. He was known to want to walk a specific fell on that map so then ARCC(Seaking) along with the local MRT turned out to search. He was found but unfortunately deceased, however the location was right.
 I hope this shows the benefit of leaving some information somewhere.

Enjoy your walking/climbing/biking and keep safe. Don't forget that MRT collection box in the pub.


  1. Its reassuring to know that all these dedicated services are available to us humble walkers..

    1. Thanks Jim. That's it as a subject about dried up now. Time to get back to some walking.

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  3. Thanks for the comments about SARLOC. It seems to saving us a huge amount of man hours. For information, I have now resigned from OVMRO to concentrate on IT at a National level.

    1. Well done on it's inception Russ & MR staff I've spoken to agree when it can be used it is excellent. I am sure MR nationally will benefit from your National IT contribution. Keep fit, keep walking & keep safe; says it all really.