Essex to the rescue
PUBLISHED: 09:39 21 July 2015 | UPDATED: 09:39 21 July 2015
When Essex Police go in search of a missing person, they often call on the support of Essex Search and Rescue. Holly Eells meets team members from this volunteer group that are making a real difference to the lives of people in Essex
EACH YEAR, several thousands of people are reported missing in Essex. While the majority of cases turn up safe and well, sometimes, for those who are not found so promptly, this is when the Essex Search and Rescue (ESAR) team get involved. ESAR is a registered charity which responds at anytime, day or night, to calls from Essex Police (and occasionally neighbouring forces) to assist in the search for vulnerable missing people.
Making sure teams respond to each case with a fast response is vital according to Stephen Nicholas, chairman of ESAR. Stephen explains why the police come to them for help: ‘There are 33 Lowland Search and Rescue teams in the UK, and ESAR is one of them. All the teams work closely with their respective police forces. The police are pleased to be able to call on teams of volunteers who are trained to a recognised and high standard in search techniques, and other skills including being vetted for working with vulnerable people. The police call on their local team when they need help in finding a high risk missing person. We are on standby 24/7 and the police will call our search manager, who will call us to a rendezvous point using a special, express text messaging system.’
ESAR was established in October 2002 to provide a group of trained volunteers ready to assist the police searching for missing vulnerable persons (such as children, dementia and Alzheimer sufferers or those with mental health issues) primarily within the county of Essex. Its searches may be carried out in urban areas, including open spaces, car parks, recreation grounds, countryside, on open land, fields or in wooded areas.
ESAR is a registered charity and is funded entirely through voluntary donations and contributions. As well as funding the training of searchers and search management capability, these donations also pay for all the equipment needed for the team to be fully self sufficient in the role, such as a control vehicle, mapping, GPS, communications and first aid equipment.
Karin Yung, who has been with the registered charity for several years, is part of the specialist K9 Unit and she encourages anyone who wants to to get involved. She says: ‘It is an extremely worthwhile cause and there is no greater feeling in the world than when your dog finds the missing person and you were part of the reunion with their family. My husband and I enjoy what we do and we are proud to give something back to the Essex community.
‘Any dog can get involved, but it has to have a high level of play and prey drive making it a potential search dog. We prefer dogs belonging to the working dog group such as pointers, spaniels, shepherds and other gundog breeds. It is important to remember there is a lot of commitment involved, because it takes about two years to train a dog and then they have to pass an assessment carried out by our governing body, ALSAR. We train as a unit every Tuesday and Sunday, but most handlers put more time in on the other days.’
Karin adds: ‘I have three Belgian Malinois who are at all levels. Indiana, aged nine, is the longest serving search dog in the unit and he is what we call an air scenting dog. He alerts me on any human scent which he comes across while searching. Cedric, aged three, is a man trailing dog who can follow the scent he takes of an item belonging to the missing person for a very long time after we have been called in to help searching. Finally Hawkeye is a trainee air scenting dog and he is still an extremely immature puppy who hopefully will fill Indiana’s boots when he retires one day.’
Over the last year ESAR has formed a mountain bike team and is currently working on a water search team too. In June 2015, it merged with its sister organisation Search Dogs Essex and has now become ESAR K9 Unit.
Karin explains: ‘We have always worked closely together and it seemed a logical step to become fully integrated, with the search dogs becoming a specialist K9 Unit within ESAR.’
The Essex Police treat reports of missing people very seriously and devote a considerable amount of time and resources to locate the vulnerable, but help from the community has proved to be necessary and appreciated. The ESAR volunteers and members of the Association of Lowland Search and Rescue dedicate a lot of their free time with their pet dogs providing a service for the Essex Police and the local community in the search for missing people.
Stephen explains why he has never looked back since joining the charity. He says: ‘I have been a member for just over three years and I wanted to do something to help people, something voluntary, but after many years working behind a desk in London, I also wanted to be in the outdoors. I have lived in Essex for most of my life, but during both training and operational callouts we visit locations I’ve never been before and sometimes never even heard of. This brings home to me how diverse Essex is and how much beautiful countryside we have. It’s a real source of pleasure.’
Stephen continues: ‘Even though I am a cat person, I have trained as a dog team support technician. When one of our specialist dogs is searching, the dog handler must focus all of their attention on the dog directing them, but also looking out for any signs that the dog may have picked up on the way, and these can be quite subtle. It’s quite a busy role watching the dogs work and is always a cause of wonder for me. They are so quick and of course their ability to find a scent is astonishing. The K9 Unit does not replace the foot search team or the specialist units, but is a marvellous tool to have to complement them.
‘Naturally the biggest highlight for any of us will always be finding a missing person safe and well, but sometimes we may have to deal with an injury and sometimes, sadly, we find a missing person deceased. Often the outcome can be inconclusive, but even then we have managed to eliminate certain areas, which will help further efforts to locate the missing person. Whatever the outcome, I take a real pride in knowing that the team has done a thorough and professional job.’