What happens on a search exercise

It’s early evening and car after car rolls into the forest car park. The old and battered control van, packed with computers, maps, statistics and information, is parked up and ready, and soon team leaders have been briefed and are in turn briefing their orange high-viz jacketed teams on tonight’s search exercise.

It’s a missing woman apparently. Mid-fifties, dementia sufferer, but early stages. ‘Name?’ No, we don’t know that. ‘What does she look like’? Mid-height and brownish hair apparently, but we don’t know if it’s long or short. ‘What is she wearing? Someone else wants to know, and the answer is vague – they think blue jeans and maybe a black top or coat… Ah, so we are searching a large forest for someone who is female, middle-aged, medium height, brownish hair and wearing jeans. And she may or may not be showing signs of dementia.

But the family are worried and there is cause for concern, the Police have asked us to assist them in looking for her and so we have turned out to search – and hopefully find, this lady.

That’s quite a standard briefing, actually. Gradually, as the search progresses we may get to know more, but it’s important to get started before dark and before the person gets colder, distressed or injured and before they panic and walk further away from their last known spot… So we often start searches with very little information.

Our sector (the bit we are searching) is a square area of the forest and we are asked to do a route and search. That means we go quite fast and search not too far either side of the main path. However dementia sufferers can ‘ping pong’ between objects and veer quite far away into the woods so we are asked to search seventy metres either side of the path. And we also know that dementia sufferers often stay on the easier tracks and paths, but decision points like two paths crossing can be confusing for them and cause them to start this ‘ping pong’ pattern of veering off features. So in this search we aim to dart into any little side tracks and to be mindful of any decision points, while moving fast and hoping to perhaps catch up with the missing person if she’s still on one of the main paths.

It’s a forest, so of course there’s a stream and thickets and it’s pretty boggy in places too, so we are mindful of our own safety – no use one of us becoming another casualty. That would really hamper the search and tie up precious resources as well as reduce our chances of finding the missing person before dark.

We fall into our search routine of walking quickly, and searching the near, far and mid distance and looking through the trees as far as possible, and doing that in all directions. Someone spots a roe deer moving through the trees, another spots a possible hunched-up person in the shadows, but that turns out to be an uprooted tree. We see a field absolutely full of early purple orchids, and plenty of deer, dog and badger tracks. Over the radio, our communications person receives information about a recent sighting and a grid reference. It’s a spot two minutes away and we search but see nothing as the sighting is some hours old by now.

We head back for another search of the area when someone glimpses something at the base of a tree some thirty metres into the wood. It’s a woman matching the description who has a broken leg. She is conscious and able to talk. She seems confused, but says her name is Marie and her husband is Bob and that she lives somewhere nearby, though she doesn’t remember where, and she walked into the area. We contact our control van and ask for support from the other teams, because this is a place that is inaccessible to ambulances and will require us to carry the casualty out. Occasionally the missing person is found and the whole area becomes an incident scene and is treated as a crime scene in the first instance as the Police establish whether the person has been hurt by someone or has hurt themselves, and we have to tread really carefully. But today it’s just a broken leg, and there is no reason to suspect foul play, so we can carry her out. We radio in our specific location and request a stretcher, blankets and splints. Within fifteen minutes, the missing woman has been bundled onto a stretcher and is carried out to the ambulance.

This was of course a training exercise and the woman was one of our team members who really did have a strained ankle. If it had been a real search, we wouldn’t have been able to talk about it let alone write about it, as it would have been a live Police investigation. That does however mean that most people have never heard or thought about Lowland Rescue, unlike our more visible cousins Mountain and Cave Rescue, and the RNLI.

Here in Oxfordshire, we have a great team, really friendly with members who are electricians, teachers, retired bankers, oil and gas workers, archaeologists, ambulance drivers, community and charity workers, RAF members, dentists, and gardeners to name but a very few of our professions. This makes for an interesting and creative group of men and women and we range in age from youngsters of twenty and thirty to others with silver beards. We have boat teams, land teams, riverbank teams, flood rescue teams search planners, search managers, people who do fundraising and manage our communications, training, Police liaison and recruiting – and of course we are always keen to hear from anyone who might be interested in searching with us. But as well as all those, we are at the moment also looking for people who might want to help us by role-playing a missing person in a search exercise this summer…

Helping us train by playing a missing person for one of our search exercises will give you a very unique first-hand understanding of what we do, and how we work. We are all professional search and rescue volunteers, but do that in our spare time. Our unit is on call to help with civic emergencies and assist the police twenty-four seven, three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. Nationally, there are thirty-three search and rescue teams and around two thousand professionally qualified and vetted volunteers, and it is estimated that we save the already stretched Police over two billion pounds every year.

If someone goes missing in your family anywhere in Oxfordshire, we will most likely be called out to search for them. We look for children, the elderly, people with mental health problems and people who are feeling despondent. Often we find them.