Social Media Action Plan for SAR

Social Media Action Plan for SAR
Social media tracking

In my previous post I hinted at the need for a social media action plan for Search and Rescue. I’d like to present that plan here and ask for feedback from the SAR community.

The current Subject Profile (ICS 301) and Lost Person Questionnaire (ICS 302) have fields for a lot of information about a missing person, but they were made before the advent of social media, and smart phones.

Modern hikers have access to a huge variety of devices and services that can record and track their location, and most of them aren’t even designed for locating the person.

Location Tracking Services

For example, many mountain bikers use Strava, which is a service (similar to others in it’s class) to track athletic activities. How it does this is by recording locations, and deriving your speed. However, some devices uploaded locations in real time to the application’s web site, and if the user is sharing this information it could give clues as to their last known location. Accessing a user’s Strava history might also be instructive as to their favourite trails.

Similarly, many hikers are now carrying a class of devices known as SEND (Satellite Emergency Notification Device), and some of them allow the user to automatically track their location as well. Popular SEND devices are Delorme InReach and SPOT. It is quite possible for a person to become injured or incapacitated in such a way as they could not activate the emergency location service on this kind of device, but SAR could still gather information about their previous locations.

Yet another way modern hikers willingly track their locations is through the use of Social Media. While this method only works when there is cellular data service, a cell phone could be in and out of service several times throughout the day, giving the user the opportunity to post. Many services, such as Instagram and Twitter, can embed location information into their posts. This location can be extracted through the use of tools such as the one I’ve written;

YourLo.cation Instagram service showing the locations recorded via Instagram

Finally, users may just post information about their plans for the weekend. If the social media privacy settings are set to allow public access, SAR agencies can gather information about the subject’s plans, equipment, and preparation for their trip. With the assistance of the subject’s social media contacts more information could be gathered.


Of course there are many problems you can encounter while attempting to access these location services;

  • the user may have configured the privacy settings so you can’t see their posts.
  • they may have turned off location services on their phones,
  • or the settings in the service.

Finally, and most importantly, most of these services do not record the estimate of the error in the location. What this means is that while a raw coordinate is recorded, it does not record an estimate of how accurate this position is. As I have demonstrated elsewhere on this blog, the location reported on a smart phone can be off by thousands of metres.

It is vitally important that if you do attempt to access the location of a missing person via social media that you interpret that location as just a clue, rather than a certainty. If the location makes little sense, treat it as a low priority.

Action Plan

Download (PDF, 93KB)

A lot of things in the plan are obvious, so why do we need an action plan?

For the same reasons we have all of the other ICS forms;

  • To remind us to ask for certain kinds of information
  • To document the efforts taken to find the missing person
  • To leave a paper trail when shifts change and new SAR managers take over

Why not modify the missing person forms? It’s probably a good idea to do so – the information should be gathered during the interview, but the Social Media Action plan should be used by the Public Information Officer (PIO) role, and the Investigations role as part of ICS. I believe having the information in a separate form is useful.

The purpose of this particular form is two fold

  1. To assess whether posting the subject’s description to social media will assist the search
    The goal of posting a missing person’s information to Social Media is to get the media and the public’s assistance in locating the missing person. If they are lost in the wilderness, there’s no reason to do this. This decision must be made in conjunction with the police of jurisdiction because posting such information is a violation of a person’s privacy and requires an authority.
  2. To assess whether Social Media could be used to assist locating the person
    This is a harder question to answer. Sometimes it’s an obvious “no”, other times it’s worth trying to locate the person using the various tools outlined in this blog and elsewhere.

We’ve included SMS as one of the channels to try to locate the person using tools like the previously mentioned service which also has resources to extract geolocation information from social media channels.

Public Domain

CC Public Domain MarkI hereby place this form, as my original work, into the public domain. You are free to take it and use it as you wish without restrictions, including without crediting the author.


I would love to hear feedback from the SAR community, and people in general, about this form. Have I missed any social media channels? Have I included ones that should not be there?

Does there need to be a guide for each social media channel?

Please contact me or comment below.

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