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Giving Dorset – Not looking but searching

Dorset Search and Rescue has been coming to the aid of vulnerable people throughout the county for the last seven years. Alan Illingworth has been to find out more.

For its search and rescue organisation, Dorset has to thank someone living in Hampshire! Bob Knott was a member of Hampshire Search and Rescue but, as a resident of Ringwood, he knew Dorset well and was aware that it had no similar group. An advertisement in the Daily Echo brought a dozen replies, and Dorset Search and Rescue (normally abbreviated to DorSAR) was up and running by the middle of 2004. Today it has just over seventy members from all walks of life, of all ages and including both men and women; it is available to support the police 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, anywhere in the county.

A team from DorSAR tackle a difficult search in woodland

A team from DorSAR tackle a difficult search in woodland

Bob Knott is still the President of the Dorset group. A call-out will usually begin with a phone call to him from the police. An SMS text message is sent to all members simultaneously and each replies tersely ‘yes yes’, ‘no no’ or ‘at at’ with a time, indicating that he or she will be available at that time; the terseness is because the last thing the organiser of the search wants at that busy moment is to enter into several lengthy dialogues. He then sends out a grid reference (and, in urban areas, a postcode) for the rendezvous point.
The next priority is to mobilise the control vehicle, a converted single-decker bus that is garaged at Bovington. As soon as it reaches the rendezvous, the computer, lights and refreshment facilities are set up. Members begin to arrive, some in their own 4x4s which they are willing to use to help the search. The team leaders set up their teams, usually of five people. Each team must include a qualified first-aider, a navigator and someone to take charge of communications with the control centre. Although there are more men than women members, it is rare to see an all-male team, and if the missing person is female, a special effort is made to include a woman in each team.

Phil Robinson, head of DorSAR’s tracking competency group, looks for the smallest sign that someone has passed this way

Phil Robinson, head of DorSAR’s tracking competency group, looks for the smallest sign that someone has passed this way

The people for whom the teams are searching are vulnerable in one sense or another: depressed, confused or diabetic, for example. The more information that can be discovered about the missing person, the better, because it is possible to predict what a ‘misper’ (for short) with a particular profile is statistically most likely to do. It does not always work: ‘My very first call was to look for an Alzheimer’s patient in Lyme Regis,’ remembers Dave Wraight, DorSAR’s Secretary. ‘About thirty of us searched the town for a day, but it turned out that she’d hopped on a bus and enjoyed a trip to Exeter.’
A typical recent search was for someone who was known to be depressed and had not returned to his home in a coastal town. While coastguards searched the cliffs and beaches, which remain their responsibility, DorSAR teams covered what was known to be the missing person’s two favourite areas. One of these was a huge area of cliff-top paths, fields and woods, which they covered in one exhausting day. The other was covered in gorse and rough undergrowth, which a DorSAR team combed in company with a police officer on a quad bike and a team from Dorset Search Dogs. Sadly, all efforts proved in vain and the missing person’s body was found in the sea a
week later.

Inside the control vehicle

Inside the control vehicle

Another callout was for a middle-aged lady for whom everything had suddenly become too much and who had just walked out of her house in a remote rural area. It was a cold winter’s evening and 35 DorSAR members turned out, starting their search at about 9 pm. The lady would certainly have been dead or near to death from hypothermia had they not found her half a mile from her house four hours later.
The technique of searching varies with the terrain, but basically the team advances in line abreast and, at the far side of the search area, pivots on the end man (or woman) and crosses the area again. The teams are searching, not just looking, and the key to this is ‘the searcher’s cube’: the searcher imagines himself in the centre of the bottom side of a cube that is moving along with him. Thus he is looking not just ahead, at the ground and to left and right, but up and behind him as well. Progress is meticulously recorded by the navigator, using map and compass or GPS. All information is fed into the control vehicle’s computer on the team’s return so that a full and accurate picture is always available to the police.
The technique in towns is different, often being in effect door-to-door enquiries. Night-time searches involve going onto private property uninvited, which DorSAR members are entitled to do as they are always acting under the direction of the police. ‘I could tell you what’s in every back garden of one village I searched at 3 am,’ recalls
Dave Wraight.
New recruits need no qualifications or previous experience. They are invited to one or more training sessions before completing an application form and being CRB-checked. They then receive training in all aspects of the group’s work, culminating in a weekend’s ‘search technician’s course’. If they pass that and have proved their physical fitness, they are ready to respond to callouts. However, as well as keeping their basic knowledge up to date, they can specialise in subjects like working near water, tracking competency and forensic awareness.
DorSAR is one of twenty similar county organisations and, like all the others, is financially self-supporting. A small, dedicated group of fund-raisers undertakes a range of activities and can be seen at shows and other events around the county. A lucky coincidence in this respect was when a team was observed searching near Sixpenny Handley by William Gronow Davis, owner of the Rushmore Estate. He has not only supported the group materially but has made his land available for exercises from time to time.
It is not really appropriate to talk of a success rate for DorSAR. To spend all day searching Poole town centre, as Dave Wraight has done, and to find later that the missing person must already have drowned in the Harbour, does not make the effort any less worthwhile or necessary. For the rest of us, it is a comfort to know that if by any mischance we should find ourselves lost, alone, cold and frightened, there are those prepared to give their time and effort to lead us back to safety.

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