Drug smugglers, human traffickers, illegal immigrants, and even potential terrorists crossing the United States border do their best to, literally, cover their tracks. It is the responsibility of the United States Border Patrol (USBP) to pursue and apprehend these individuals. Without proper training, tracking people who do not want to be found is a nearly impossible task, and it can be extremely difficult even with training.
While the USBP does perform standardized tracking training, proficiency varies based on the individual. USBP asked the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) First Responders Group (FRG) to develop training to assist in increasing tracking abilities. Tracking, or “sign cutting,” is identifying telltale indicators of movement through the southern border’s desert or northern border’s wooded areas.
FRG worked with USBP and Federal Law Enforcement Training Center to devise a way for USBP agents to learn how to leverage expert trackers’ knowledge, skills, and abilities. First, FRG’s Office of Public Safety Research (OPS-R) worked with USBP to identify expert trackers in the USBP workforce. Next, the research team conducted an in-depth analysis of the approaches and decision processes of expert trackers.
The results of the research and technology development effort is called “Expert Tracker,” a new training program that aims to improve our nation’s operational security capabilities along the border. In February 2017, 2D and 3D training videos were developed for sign cutting and transitioned to USBP. The videos breakdown the visual cues of human activity.
“Having training like this at the fingertips of every USBP agent would increase our operational security,” said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent and Operational Support Daniel Dean. “We have a responsibility to not only our agents, but the American people to have the best possible training available to our officers. The Expert Tracker training we are developing with DHS S&T keeps us at the forefront of integrating technology, current training research, and innovation.”
Often expert trackers are unable to articulate the cues that allow them to be so skillful in this task, or train other officers so they will have similar skills. Working collaboratively with Border Patrol Agents (BPAs), S&T OPS-R identified a need for improved training of this critical skill.
“Not all expert trackers are expert instructors,” explained OPS-R Program Manager Darren Wilson. “So it was a great partnership to get to work with USBP’s expert trackers to identify the cues, symbols, and signs they look for. We then used our experts in training development to develop a product that leveraged that information to improve performance across the workforce.”
In addition to evaluating current training materials, the expert trackers walked the research and development team through their process at various locations along the U.S. southern border, including McAllen, Texas; Tucson, Arizona; and San Diego, California. During a structured interview with the research team, expert trackers identified key cues they use when conducting sign cutting and tracking. One or more evaluators then worked through the details of the tracking task, asking the USBP trainers a set of questions to elicit even more details and information. Through this method, defined as a “cognitive walkthrough,” the expert tracker articulates the task in different ways to allow the evaluators to fully understand the task and subtasks from different angles.
The Expert Tracker videos have been incorporated into USBP ‘s training programs. Phase two of the Expert Tracker kicks off in May 2017 and will include development of a smartphone pp(s) that BPAs will have in the field to assist the agents when conducting the sign cutting task.