Cell phone ‘ping’ helps police narrow searches
By Charles McMahon
Thursday, November 12, 2009
PORTSMOUTH — The ability to track someone’s cell phone signal to a specific area may not be something new for fans of CSI and other TV cop dramas but the use of the technology became very real this past week as police searched for a little girl abducted by her father.
Maine authorities issued an AMBER Alert on Monday afternoon to find 38-year-old Gary Traynham after he allegedly assaulted his two-year-old daughter’s mother and fled the mother’s Sanford, Maine, apartment with little Hailey in a stolen pickup truck.
The U.S. Justice Department’s Website describes the Amber Alert Program as “a voluntary partnership between law-enforcement agencies, broadcasters, transportation agencies, and the wireless industry, to activate an urgent bulletin in the most serious child-abduction cases. The goal of an AMBER Alert is to instantly galvanize the entire community to assist in the search for and the safe recovery of the child.”
And that’s what happened right after Hailey was taken. The airwaves were saturated with reports about her abduction.
Through witness reports and information received indicating that Traynham had ties to the Lakes Region, police began to scour communities throughout Central New Hampshire. Signs of the alert were visible everywhere, from the state, local and federal authorities positioned along Route 11 on Tuesday to the electronic construction signs that displayed messages about Traynham’s license plate number.
Hours into the eventual 30-hour manhunt, police caught a break when they were able to determine Traynham had made a phone call with his cell phone and the signal had “pinged” or transmitted off a communications tower in Alton.
Sanford Police Chief Thomas Connolly told WMUR that authorities were able to get an idea of where Traynham may have been headed when they received information his cell phone had used the signal from the tower.
“They were able to draw an arc on a map and said information from the cell phone indicates Traynham and his little girl were somewhere in that arc,” Connolly told WMUR. “Son of a gun they were found right in the middle of that arc.”
Hailey Traynham and her mother were reunited Tuesday night in Sanford, Maine, after a deer hunter spotted her and her father in a pickup truck on a logging road in Milton.
An unrelated incident in Portsmouth on Wednesday offered further proof that tracking cell phones for law enforcement purposes can be life-saving and in some cases an important precaution.
According to radio communications, around 10:30 a.m. local police were on the lookout for a possibly suicidal Connecticut man believed to be in the area. Radio transmissions indicated Connecticut authorities had received information that the man’s cell phone had last “pinged” off a tower in the Portsmouth area.
Police were then asked to be on the lookout for the man at area hospitals and eventually found him at a friend’s residence unharmed a short while later.
Portsmouth Police Community Relations Capt. Mike Schwartz said the effort in tracking someone’s cell phone is a team effort with law enforcement and phone service carriers and is only used in situations deemed to be an emergency. When police determine a situation necessitates using the technology, Schwartz said they contact the cell phone carrier, identify themselves as law enforcement and request a trace of the last known signal used.
Schwartz said the service is then able to tell authorities the last tower the cell phone signal “pinged” off.
“It’s for emergencies and there is tight criteria on it,” said Schwartz. “Every now and then we get people who say they lost their phone and ask, ‘can you ping it?’ We have to tell them ‘no,’ that’s not an emergency.”
The tracking is also not always 100 percent, said Schwartz, but does give law enforcement agencies a good starting point.
Michael Murphy, New England public affairs spokesman for Verizon Wireless, also acknowledged the relationship law enforcement and cell phone carriers have when it comes to potentially harmful situations.
“Verizon Wireless maintains a Law Enforcement Resource Team (LERT) that is ready and available 24/7 to assist authorities with life-threatening situations,” Murphy said.
Call ICORP Investigations regarding GPS tracking systems – Toll Free 866.984.2677
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