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Friday, 04 October 2019 13:57

The challenges of looking for the missing

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The worst part of a search

The worst part of any search is when the team has failed to find. Eight hours is reckoned the maximum members can search effectively before exhaustion kicks in. At some point the Search Manager in the Dart 02 control vehicle will radio RTB (Return to Base). Because each search party will have been monitoring radio traffic, it is unlikely that this instruction will mean that a missing person has been found by us. We would probably have heard.

Dartmoor Search and Rescue searching for a missing vulnerable male near Exeter

It may however mean that they have turned up somewhere else, as has happened on more than one occasion. People who rush off leaving friends and relatives to believe that they may be intent on suicide, do not always head off to known areas, classically to a high point before they seek to harm themselves.  They sometimes go to friends to bemoan their troubles.

Nevertheless, when that RTB call comes through and you slump into the team Land Rover to be taken back to the Control Vehicle, a number of feelings run through your mind. The most concerning is that somehow you might have missed the casualty, because you didn’t press further into that great clump of brambles or because you didn’t go right down into the stream to have a really proper look under that culvert.  The idea that the person you are seeking may be found days later, almost certainly dead, by a dog walker in an area that you looked through can be haunting. 

Failure to find is a positive?

But then again, failure to find can be a positive. On every call out, search managers, generally working with a police LPSM (Lost Person Search Manager), divide up the surrounding ground into search areas. Each of these is given a letter and one or more search parties assigned to check it out. As each is completed, the person in charge of those searchers, the HPL (Hill Party Leader), will call in a POD (Probability of Detection), ie the chance that the missing person would have been found in the sweep by his or her party. With the exception of open fields, it is rare that a POD will be given as anything over 90 percent. Dense woodland, thick brush, high bracken and large areas of gorse all force a low realistic POD assessment.

But this still matters because as and when a missing person has not been found in all the designated search areas, search managers can assess where a fresh look needs to be taken. For some ground conditions, an air-scenting search dog from SARDA (Search and Rescue Dog Association) will be far better suited for the check. Working with their handler and a navigator they can cover a given area faster and therefore more efficiently than a walking party.

But at the end of a fruitless, long and tiring search, the worst of which is through steeply sloping woodland with a thick bramble ground cover, the stand down and the debrief around the control vehicle will have you clambering sadly into your vehicle for the drive home. However, the consolation is that if the team did its job properly and all designated areas were searched thoroughly, what it has done is prove a negative. The missing person is almost certainly not there, which means that he or she has to be somewhere else. Thus the police can refocus their enquiries elsewhere.

The other side of this coin of course is when the team finds a missing person alive, even if injured or deeply unhappy. All resources are focused on caring for and swiftly extracting that individual, if needs be on a stretcher to wherever there is a road head at which they can be met by a team or NHS ambulance. Those are the red letter days when you drive back home with a smile on your face and some music blaring out loud. 

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