Joining Sussex Search & Rescue on a training exercise
PUBLISHED: 14:46 22 August 2016 | UPDATED: 14:46 22 August 2016
Finding a missing person takes skill, organisation and lots of heart, as Hazel Sillver discovers when she joins Sussex Search & Rescue on a training exercise
It is a still March night and even my bones feel cold as I make my way through the dense darkness. But there is no time to wish I’d put my thermals on – in fact the thought doesn’t enter my head. Right now, there are more important things to think about. I am surrounded by members of the Sussex Search and Rescue (SusSAR) team, as together we scan the countryside for a missing person.
Their torches sweep the muddy field we’re trudging through and flood the woodland alongside with light. Every unnatural item is examined – here a shopping bag, there a plastic container – we don’t go around the bog, but straight through it. Every square metre of the patch we’ve been assigned to search must be covered with our eyes. We’re hunting for clues, but ultimately looking for a body.
The missing person is 59-year-old Terry Hampton, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and was last seen six hours ago. We’re given a physical description, including details of his clothing, and told that he suffers from a heart condition, for which he is due medication. The temperature has dropped considerably since Terry left the house and team member Jon Henderson, a retired ambulance technician, is concerned for his safety: “He could be in a lot of difficulty – experiencing hypothermia, or heart troubles. We need to find him as fast as possible.”
This is a highly organised mission. Search planners coordinate the rescue, dividing the team of searchers into groups of four. Each team includes a leader, and a medic. Dressed in well-padded high visibility uniforms that are packed with search kit, radios and, according to searcher Hannah Dickens, “lots of chocolate!”, we roam the area the police think Terry is most likely to be found in.
“It’s not easy to find a missing person,” explains Robin Haynes, a search manager for Specialist Search Wing with Sussex Police, who has spent 28 years working in search operations, including high profile cases such as the Soham murders. “Using statistics and intelligence, we can work out where the person is most likely to be. For example we know that a person with advanced dementia may not remember where they live, but they’re likely to remember where they lived 30 years ago. And we know that sufferers of dementia often walk in a straight line. These are all clues that help us build up a picture of where that person could be, and we then pass that information onto search teams.”
SusSAR work for and with Sussex Police. They also combine forces with other search teams such as the RNLI and Search Dogs Sussex and the ambulance service when necessary. Robin is adamant that his job would be very difficult without them: “I need people on the ground when I’m trying to track down a missing person,” he says. “If a child under three goes missing, for instance, he or she will probably find somewhere to crawl into, such as a hedge, where my helicopters won’t pick them up. So I’ve got to have people on the ground and, unfortunately, Sussex Police doesn’t have the resources to provide me with the numbers I need. Without SusSAR, a lot of my search work would be almost impossible.”
SusSAR was set up in 2002 after the Sarah Payne inquiry, during which Sussex Police were overwhelmed by members of the public wanting to help look for Sarah – a valuable aid to their work that required better
co-ordination. Today SusSAR is the main voluntary resource the police call upon to help find high-risk vulnerable missing individuals, such as somebody despondent who could be contemplating suicide, a person suffering from mental illness, or a young child. “A recent success story involved us finding an elderly man alive in the Chichester area after a two-day search in wet, cold conditions,” Jon informs me. “He was severely hypothermic – his temperature was 24˚C! A find such as that makes this work very rewarding.”
The group is a charity that receives no government funding and is run entirely by volunteers. Each member of the 51-strong team is highly skilled. Becoming a searcher involves some tough training over the course of three to six months and further skills, such as dog handling, first aid, and search planning, require further expertise. The job requires expensive kit such as radios and computers, all of which must be paid for with self-raised funds and donations.
Only 10 per cent of the team is retired – these dedicated local residents are required to give up precious free time and energy after work and on days off. Earlier this year, for example, there was a two-day search over Valentine’s weekend. Newly engaged SusSAR searcher Nick Rewcastle and his fiancé (fundraising officer and searcher Hannah) were required to drop any romantic plans and head out to help. “You might not get a call-out for a whole month, then suddenly you’ll receive two or three in quick succession,” says Nick. “Sometimes we don’t have much to go on, and it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack. But we have to look. The long late hours and the bad weather conditions are bearable because you know the missing person and their next of kin are depending on you. When we succeed and find the person alive, it’s a great feeling.”
And on this evening’s search operation we do succeed. Elbowing our way through a spinney of dense trees, we finally come across our missing man. Terry is lying on the muddy ground, cold and confused. Although this is a training exercise and Terry is a (very good) actor, it’s a relief to find him. Jon sets about reassuring him and checks his health. His heart rate is fine, but he has sprained his ankle, so a stretcher is radioed for. Within minutes, he is hoisted onto it, cosied up in a sleeping bag, and carried through the dark wood to safety.
Sussex Search & Rescue (SUSSAR): The Facts and Figures
• SusSAR’s 51 trained volunteer searchers are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
• In 2015, the team spent 1,500 hours searching for missing persons across Sussex and neighbouring counties
• The group has saved Sussex Police approximately £300,000 since 2008
• To keep standards high, the team trains twice a month
• A search stint can last for eight hours or longer, during which time searchers must fuel themselves with portable snacks
• Around 75 per cent of missing persons sought by SusSAR are elderly people suffering from dementia
• SusSAR is currently in need of an updated communication system, supplying at least half of the 51-strong team with a radio costing £300-400
• Each team member must provide his or her own kit and transport and pay for fuel
• It can take between three to six months to train in basic search skills
• The operation, which relies on donations and fundraising, costs more than £12,000 per annum
• Since May, SusSAR has been training and operating a water team to search rivers, lakes, and the sea
• The charity is trying to raise funds for a head office which would serve as a base for the coordination of each search
The vital work that Sussex Search and Rescue performs is reliant upon donations. If you would like to help, you can donate online (justgiving.com/searchandrescue-sussex) or email Hannah Dickens (firstname.lastname@example.org) to find out about fundraising opportunities.