Lessons learned from Kim tragedy

One year later, the death of CNET's James Kim has led to advances in search-and-rescue techniques and a better grasp of how cell phones can save lives. Video: Remembering James Kim

Travelers, hikers, and mountain climbers are safer now because of James Kim.

It was a year ago today that Kim's body was found after he, his wife, and two daughters were stranded for more than a week in a snowy national forest in Oregon. Kim's family survived, but he died of exposure after setting out to find help.

Kim's story drew national attention to missteps made by Oregon authorities as they searched for the CNET Reviews editor and his family last December. An ensuing investigation has led to improvements in search-and-rescue techniques in Oregon and a better understanding across the country of how cell phones can save lives.

Part of Kim's legacy is that if people were to find themselves in the same predicament today, the chances are higher that they would be found sooner.

"Things have improved with (search-and-rescue procedures)," said Scott Nelson Windels, a close friend to James and Kati Kim. "But there is still plenty of room for improvement."

Following the search, Kim's father, Spencer, complained that Oregon officials had botched the search for his son. A review of authorities' performance exposed numerous shortcomings. Chief among them was that Oregon and San Francisco law enforcement officials had little understanding of how to trace a cell phone.

According to a report issued by the Oregon State Sheriff's Association last summer, a San Francisco detective looking for the Kims asked their cell phone company where the family had made their last call. Instead, the detective should have asked where the Kims' phones had made their last electronic "handshake" with a cell phone tower.

Even when people aren't on their cell phones , the handsets try to communicate, or "shake hands," with nearby cell towers every 30 seconds to register their location. Companies maintain records of the handshakes, including when the contact was made and signal strength, which can help pinpoint a phone's location.

It should be noted that most newer cell phones come equipped with a GPS chip inside them, which makes locating them even easier.

Luckily for Kati Kim and her two daughters, two employees from Edge Wireless, Eric Fuqua and Noah Pugsley, took an interest in the case. Of their own volition, they contacted Kim's relatives and obtained their phone numbers. This helped them track down the electronic handshakes made by James Kim's phone.

Fuqua and Pugsley went to the police with their information, and this eventually led to the rescue of Kim's wife and children.

But days had passed before Fuqua and Pugsley got involved. Had detectives known about this technology earlier, they might have been able to rescue the entire family.

Oregon is trying to learn from its mistakes. Local phone companies have trained searchers on tracing cell phones. The state has also worked to eliminate other glaring problems.

Oregon passed a law this year that requires searchers to clarify who is responsible for overseeing multi-agency rescue operations. The search for the Kims was said to be hampered by miscommunication between the different agencies involved. In addition, the road the Kims were stranded on, Bear Camp Road, has been closed.

The James Kim story has undoubtedly raised awareness in other areas of the country. In September, a woman trapped in her car for a week after she crashed into a ravine near Renton, Wash., was rescued by tracing her cell phone handshakes.

Kim's legacy lives on in other ways, as well. In his memory, the nonprofit James Kim Technology Foundation was created to ensure that children in San Francisco public schools have access to the technology that is helping shape the world around them.

 

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