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New tech lets North Shore Rescue locate out-of-service cellphones

As long as your phone is on, North Shore Rescue can find your exact location with a new helicopter-mounted device
North Shore Rescue volunteer John Blown operates the hoist on Talon Helicopters’ Dauphin helicopter, Dec. 2021. | Grant Baldwin, North Shore Rescue

Nikki Donnelly was distressed when she called her boyfriend. Donnelly, a 21-year-old visitor from Toronto, had snowshoed the Howe Sound Crest Trail to St. Mark’s Summit but got off trail on her return. Donnelly said she was getting into deeper terrain but the call quickly dropped. Her boyfriend called police and North Shore Rescue launched a massive search. The next day, they found her body down a gully.

With the help of some new technology, it’s the kind of outcome team leader Mike Danks hopes to never see again.

North Shore Rescue is soon to deploy Lifeseeker, a helicopter-mounted phone location device that practically takes the “search” out of “search and rescue.”

In much of the North Shore backcountry and mountain drainages, there is little hope of getting a strong enough cell signal to call for help. Lifeseeker acts like a portable cell tower that has the ability to zero in on a specific device and ping rescuers to its location, even when they’re in an area with no coverage.

Danks described the technology as “an absolute game changer.”

“As long as that phone is on … as soon as it comes within range of that phone, it will automatically lock onto it and it will provide the co-ordinates for it,” Danks said. “It’s no longer a needle in the haystack.”

More than greatly upping the chances of finding someone before it’s too late, the technology will help keep rescuers safe as well, allowing them to stay out of risky terrain that they don’t need to search on foot, Danks said.

The notion of rescuers being able to almost instantly locate any individual’s cellphone may trigger privacy concerns, Danks acknowledged, but the Lifeseeker’s use is strictly regulated.

In order to get the device, they first needed approvals from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, the federal department that oversees telecommunications.

The only time they’ll be able to use it is when they’ve been tasked by the police for a search and it will only pick up the cell signal of the phone it’s been programmed to find. And unlike law enforcement Stingray devices, Lifeseeker does not intercept calls or text messages for surveillance purposes.

“So there’s no opportunity for us to use this to spy on people or to lock onto other phones. It is very specific to the device that you are looking for,” Danks said.

Although North Shore Rescue is the first civilian search and rescue team to have a Lifeseeker-type device in Canada, they are very common in Europe, Danks said.

But, Lifeseeker will only work when a cellphone is turned on, so it’s more important than ever for hikers to follow North Shore Rescue’s advice to conserve their phone’s battery or carry a backup, said Danks.

The North Shore Rescue team sees tremendous potential to save lives, especially in searches for a subject who is injured, unconscious or otherwise unable to reach out for help, just like Donnelly was.

“We were already there. We were probably 400 feet away from her. But she was in the trees in a gully. We couldn’t see her. She was unresponsive at the time,” Danks said. “She was the needle in the haystack. If we had Lifeseeker, we could have gone right to her location.”

The team invested $250,000 just to buy the device. Installing it on one of Talon’s helicopters will come with its own price tag. Danks said they would love to find a sponsor in the community to help offset the cost of the life-saving device.

This story was included in a special North Shore Rescue print feature that ran in the Jan. 24 edition of the North Shore News. Other stories from the feature include a look back at the career of legendary team leader Tim Jones 10 years after his sudden death, a generous donation that funded the purchase of life-saving avalanche backpacks for all members of the team, and a look at the team's biggest advancements and achievements of 2023. You can also read the complete digital edition of the print feature here

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