Operational Tracker Evaluation – The UFC of Tracking…


Back in nineteen hundred and ninety three, the world of martial arts was forever changed. Some visionary promoters decided to put two fighters in a cage with a few rules and see what happened.

Sumo wrestlers, kung fu masters, kickboxers, and even a ninja competed in those early years. The background of the fighters didn’t matter, nor did their weight, and when the door of the cage closed something magical happened..

All the romanticized bullshit surrounding martial arts was put to the test and the foundation for mixed martial arts was laid.

Fast forward to April 2015, and you would find me drawing a parallel of the early Ultimate Fighting Championships and the challenge I was about to undertake, the Operational Tracker Evaluation at Natural Awareness Tracking School http://trackingschool.com/get-certified

Having trained all over the country and utilizing tracking for law enforcement, search and rescue, and hunting, I can attest that like martial arts, tracking has been romanticized, spiritualized, and every other “ized” in the book. There are different styles, gurus, and methods employed, but when a search or mission happens, all that really matters is your ability to read the sign, interpret it, and use the appropriate tactics. Determining whether or not a tracker has those skills in the state of Virginia, fell upon the shoulders of Rob Spieden and a committee of experienced trackers.

Five years ago, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management approached Rob, a veteran tracker with 20+ years of search and rescue experience http://trackingschool.com/instructors/rob-speiden, to improve their Field Team Signcutter program, which had been in existence since the 90’s. Recognizing the difference between “certified” and “qualified” Rob created an evaluation program that would allow search managers to know the skill levels of their resources.

In his words, Rob describes the Operational Tracker Evaluation as:

“An objective, comprehensive, and standardized evaluation of a tracker’s skillset that provides a certification of aptitude. In addition, it is a turn key, modular program, that allows other jurisdictions (local, state, and federal) the ability to train, evaluate, and certify their resources”

That is more eloquent than “The UFC of tracking“, but I chose that description because it fits. Regardless of discipline, background, or methods, the O.T.E. throws you in the cage to see if your walk, matches your talk, but enough talking…

It is time to enter the “Track-tagon”…

Round 1 – Known/Unknown Station


This station is composed of two parts and candidates are given one hour to complete the station. In the first part, candidates are given 4 tracks. The candidates are to record,sketch and photograph the tracks without disturbing them. When tracking candidates proceed to the second part of the station, they are not allowed to go back to the first part. In the second part of the station there are several (up to 20) small boxes. The tracking candidate is then to determine, for each box, if the box contains one of the following (1) a track was made by a particular one of the four initial footwear patterns, (2) a track made by footwear different than any of the 4 tracks in part 1, or (3) there is no footprint at all in the box. Once all candidates participating in the station, the evaluator debriefsthem all with answers to each box. This station contributes scores to the tools, track detection, identification, photographing and drawing categories. Estimated time to complete this station is 1.5 hours.


Sounds easy right? Guess again. Our evaluator was all of 110 pounds and the partial tracks that were left in the box were tough to see. I took the strategy of checking each box for easily recognized “knowns’ first, which I tallied at five out of the twenty. With time ticking, the Tracking Gods decided to open up the heavens and obliterate the tracks.

Round 1 = Referee stoppage..

On Sunday, the weather cooperates and we have a rematch.

BPO wins by knockout..

Round 2 – Aging


Several lines of tracks are placed from 0 – 72 hours old. Each candidate will estimate,
to the best of their ability, the age of the tracks in each line. This station contributes solely to the Sign Interpretation – aging category score. Estimated time to complete this station is 1.5 hours.
I cringe when we walk over to the aging station. Before me lies five track lines, some up to 3 days old, in six inch grass. There isn’t a whole lot of grass where I track my hogs, so I know this is going to hurt. Somewhere between random thoughts of heading back home with my tail between my leg and wondering if Doc is having as hard a time as I am, I vow to train in grass more in the future.
OTE wins by knockout..

Round 3 – Sign Interpretation

This station involves approximately 15 to 20 questions about human,animal or other sign that is in the testing area. Any sign is fair game for questioning, but the focus of the questions are human sign or other sign that can be (or has been) misinterpreted as human sign. Once a question is presented, all candidates have a few minutes to determine their answer to the
question individually, and present that to the evaluator. Once all candidates participating in the station have given their answers, the evaluator will then discuss the answer to the question with the candidates. This station contributes solely to the humanimal or sign interpretation category. Estimated time to complete this station is 2.5 hours.


For this station, we walked around and identified various human, animal, and insect sign, with an emphasis on sign that could be misconstrued as human made. I am in my element on this one, only missing two questions, one based on ignorance, and the other for not taking the time to study the track. After getting beat up in the first two rounds, it feels good to turn the tables.
BPO wins by knockout..

Round 4 – PLS/LKP Station (Point Last Seen / Last Known Point)

This station is the most comprehensive of all of the stations. It consists of a PLS or LKP scenario set up by the evaluator. The candidate interviews the evaluator, approaches the
PLS/LKP and follows any track line of interest. The candidate is given three (3) hours to complete the station. Once the candidate has completed the station, s/he debriefs with the evaluator. This station contributes scores to the tools, interviewing, PLS/LKP, track detection, clue awareness, humanimal,identification, aging, direction of travel, photographing, drawing, casting, trailing, clue management, professionalism and communication categories. Estimated time to complete this station is 3.5 hours.


This is a missing person scenario where the tracker arrives on scene and goes to work. Lacking familiarity with VDEM protocols, I roll with the ad hoc training of my NPS heritage. After interviewing the reporting party, I locate, photograph, sketch and measure my tracks, and then proceed to trail my subject.

I have to be honest. I have a love/hate relationship with tracking. I hate the painstaking process of finding every track, i.e, step by step method, but I love using tactics to catch up to my quarry. It’s not that I lack those skill, but micro tracking can be about as exciting as watching paint dry if you are used to hunting stuff down.  A product of my environment, after establishing direction, I get aggressive and start breaking out the tactics. It pays off, and I advance on the line at a good pace, finding my subjects cell phone as I go.

My evaluator sketches our route as I progress, pausing to watch the curious behavior of a male Redneckus americanus posturing and threatening his mate in front of his spawn. I make a smart ass comment about “Virginia is for lovers right?” and my evaluator graciously allows a time out so I can make my presence known and hopefully stifle his reenactment of the Jerry Springer show.

Mission accomplished I return to the scenario and lose my track. I catch a break and cut the sign on a circle cut and backtrack it to another dropped item. Back on the line, I push forward losing it once more on a game trail, but picking it up in on a second circle cut.

With five minutes left. I get really aggressive and move forward to cut sign at the opposite side of the road’s edge to see if my subject crossed the road. No luck.

Time is up. I let out a dramatic “Noooo!!!” and make exaggerated swings with  my baseball bat sized tracking stick that I picked up in case our friend returned.

Much to my delight, I am informed my scenario ended at the road. I am pleased.

BPO wins by knockout..


Round 5 – Written Test

This is a 100 question multiple choice test. Estimated time to complete this station is
1.5 hours.


This test is based upon the VDEM  F.A.S.T.  manual “Foundations of Awareness, Signcutting, and Tracking” http://trackingschool.com/store/book-foundations-for-awareness-signcutting-and-tracking Rob is the author, and as the owner of dozens of tracking books, it is the one I  recommend for human tracking.

BPO wins by Technical Knock Out..

Round 6 – Tools Station


This station is an opportunity for candidates to demonstrate and discuss tracking tools
and how to use them. This station contributes scores to the tools, professionalism and communication categories. Estimated time to complete this station is 0.5 hours.

Easy to ace unless you are an Irishman on his third beer 🙂 After seeing Doc “The Hunky Inferno” Miller’s kit, I secretly plan to operate out of his vest in the future.

BPO wins by submission..


Round 7 – Sign Squares Station


This station consists of 6 to 9 squares that are approximately 5 feet by 5 feet
wide. The candidates may not touch or otherwise disturb anything within the squares. Candidates are to determine, for each square, if there are zero, one or two track lines (less than 24 hours old) going through the square, as well as the direction of travel of the track line. Candidates are give one hour to complete this station. Once the candidates give their answers to the evaluator, the evaluator will debrief the station by discussing which boxes had how many track lines and which way the track maker traveled. This station contributes to the track detection and direction of travel interpretation categories. Estimated time to complete this station is 1.5 hours.

There are nine of these torture devices, with five of them in the grass. It sucks. Once again I question why the hell am I subjecting myself to this, but deep down I know, that like the aging station, I will be working this drill relentlessly at our workshops from now on. Both Doc and I feel beat up on this round.

OTE wins by double knockout..


Round 8 – Signcutting

This station involves a length (approximately 200 feet) of a linear feature (a trail, road, creek bed, etc) along which the candidate is given one hour to search for clues and tracklines that are less than 24 hours old. Once the candidate has completed the station, s/he conducts a
debriefing with the evaluator. During the debriefing, the candidate communicates clues found, track lines found and direction of travel of the track line. Once the candidate completes the debriefing, the evaluator then walks the station with the candidate to show what clues and tracks the station contains.This station contributes scores to the track detection, clue awareness, humanimal, direction of travel, professionalism and communication categories. Estimated time to complete this station is 1.5 hours.


I am familiar with this drill as we do it in our bimonthly workshops. I find 4 out of five trails, missing one and misinterpreting another that has some old leaf creasing. I find all seven “clues”.

BPO wins by knockout

Round 9 – Reporting

This part of the evaluation is conducted by the evaluation or tracking standards committee
reviewing any tracking report(s) that the candidate submits for review. This element of the evaluation contributes solely to the reporting category.

I hate reports. Thankfully it is not a requirement for the Operational Tracker standard. It is however a requirement for Tracking Technician and Tracking Specialist, the two higher standards. I rode with Doc up to the class and found out why we were rolling heavy. This is a pic of his training and search mission notes.

BPO wins by default. Doc wins by submission!!


Round 10 – Professional Recommendation

This part of the evaluation is conducted by the evaluation or tracking standards committee reviewing recommendations submitted to the committee on behalf of a tracking candidate. There is a tracker recommendation form that is to be used for this element. This element
contributes solely to the professionalism category.

Fortunately, Rob has known me for a while, but I promise to get some of the Rangers to vouch for me. To contradict this category, I promptly proceed to tell the story of backtracking a ginseng poacher to where I thought he stashed his roots. Proud of my accomplishments I proceed to dig through the leaf pile next to the log and to my horror, scoop out a hand full of poacher poo.

BPO wins by round of laughter from judges..

Observations & other musings:

  • Tough gyms produce tough fighters. OTE is going to ensure skilled trackers
  • You cannot touch the tracks in the aging, sign squares, signcutting, or known/unknown stations because of group testing protocol. This makes all those stations harder and could be a point of contention. I offer up that fighters training for three minute rounds often spar for five. On that same notion, with no tactile restrictions in the real world, it will be that much easier.
  • There are two options offered. A VDEM one for residents of Virginia and a NATS certification. Fundamentally, there is little difference.
  • The test outlines, scoring matrix, and guidelines are open source and can be found here: http://trackingschool.com/get-certified
  • The next levels, Tracking Technician and Specialist require the signcutting, sign squares, and PLS/LKP stations to be done at night. There are also higher required scores on all other categories and reporting requirements
  • OTE is a turn key program vetted in a state that is renowned for it’s first class search and rescue program and trackers. Several neighboring states and a few other countries are considering adopting the program, which can be obtained through VDEM or N.A.T.S. . Both Doc Miller and I wholeheartedly decided to adopt it for our BUSAR team and I will be employing the stations in BPO’s tracking workshops.
  • Whether you are involved in search and rescue, law enforcement, or military tracking, OTE is going to have a high return on your investment
  • After getting crushed by the aging station, I learned that it is not uncommon to have to retest on stations, Rob, Tracking Specialist, and Ashley, Tracking Technician, both had to retest on some stations. To quote Rob “You don’t get into tracking to build your ego
  • Doc and I did the aging station again on Sunday before we left. We did better, but still came away bruised and beat up.
  • OTE certs last for three years. The test is modular and stations can be done piece meal.

If you jump over to my website and look at my tracking bio, you will see a change. Operational Tracker is at the top of the list, even though it does not follow the timeline. The simple reason is that there is a difference between “certified” and “qualified”. I earned certificates in many of the other quality courses, but none of them threw me in the cage to test myself.

In all seriousness. unlike the UFC, Operational Tracker Evaluation is not a competition. It is not a fight against VDEM, N.A.T.S., or Rob. It’s not even a fight against the many challenging stations. It is about the progression of a vanishing skill that has real life saving potential.

“OTE is the most comprehensive, objective, analytical, and fair assessment of an individual’s tracking skills” – Ken Miller, M.D. & SAR Stud


The next O.T.E. will be held in Christiansburg, VA on September 25 –  27 http://trackingschool.com/events

BigPig Outdoors will be hosting Rob for a one day animal and a one day human tracking class in November. Dates will be announced soon.

BigPig Outdoors also conducts bimonthly tracking workshops. More info can be found here: http://www.bigpigoutdoors.net/tracking.html

full class

2 thoughts on “Operational Tracker Evaluation – The UFC of Tracking…

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