To The Rescue!
When people go missing or find themselves in trouble in Dartmoor National Park, the police call upon a team of skilled volunteers to assist. Clare O’Reilly went along to see them in action…
Rain and dancing moths flash in front of the floodlights of the Dartmoor Search and Rescue Ashburton’s mobile command centre. It’s cold and wet, but 60 volunteers from all walks of life – including the building, teaching and medical trades – have given up six hours of their evening to take part in one of the regular training exercises. This one is taking place at the stunning Ugbrooke House, just outside the Dartmoor National Park, kindly volunteered for the exercise by Lord Clifford and his family.
Dartmoor Search and Rescue Ashburton was founded in 1968 and the team can only be called in by the emergency services. When needed, they employ their unique skill set of field craft, water proficiency, moorland expertise and hill craft in searching for missing or lost persons over the 945 sq km Dartmoor National Park.
But their work doesn’t stop at the National Park’s borders. “We can be called out all the way to Torbay and Exeter, and down to Cornwall,” says volunteer Keith Lambert, a social worker in a community mental health team and 24-year veteran of the Ashburton search and rescue team. “There’s no such thing as a ‘normal’ call-out either. Our last few, for example, have been a risk of suicide search in Exeter, a fallen climber at Haytor on Dartmoor, a girl who collapsed during her Duke of Edinburgh expedition, a lost person with dementia, a missing girl in Exeter and a risk of suicide on the lower moors. Our remit is to relieve distress and protect life in wild and remote places. We were on a search in Torbay recently for a missing person and found a body of a person that had been missing for two years.”
Volunteers spend an average of 18 months training, which includes radio communications, hill craft, steep ground work, rope work, white water training, casualty care and driving, before being qualified.
Planning and preparation
The mobile command centre is set up on Ugbrooke estate with Mike Pickering, a primary school teacher by day, briefing and showing the team the 3-mile search area they’ll be covering. Today’s training exercise is a missing persons search and rescue – Gina and Mark Harrison, a couple who’ve been having marital difficulty. Their car has been found nearby and there are reports of a female having been seen upset on a bridge the previous day.
Crew vehicles on the exercise include two Land Rover Defender 110s. Known respectively as Russell and Maggie, they are named after a former member and a family who donated the vehicle to the team. While the search teams carry medical equipment with them, Russell and Maggie also carry two stretchers on board.
At the wheel
While Dartmoor is protected and off-roading is prohibited, search and rescue teams across the moor have carte blanche to take their vehicles wherever needed if life is at risk, whether that’s to find a lost walker, or marshal the Ten Tors; an annual weekend organised by the Army, which sees more than 2,000 young people hike the moor on a weekend in May. A builder by trade, Andrew, tonight’s driver, has been a volunteer since 2011. “We’re a very tight-knit group,” he says. “When you’re entering your 13th hour of a search, you get to know your fellow search team members pretty well. We often socialise together outside of the unit, too.”
With three square miles as a search area, each of the six teams is briefed on what they’re looking for. Each team will head off in a different direction and all will stay in contact with those in the mobile command centre, who will update everyone accordingly. “There are different search methods we apply depending on the circumstances,” says Keith. “Missing persons with dementia or Alzheimer’s are typically found less than 1.5km away from their last known location and, where possible, they’ll follow a track or an edge of a field or hedgerow. They tend not to change direction. Those with a potential risk to their own life are typically found within 1.9km of a last known sighting. They tend to search for higher ground and change terrain frequently. How we map out a search varies with every call-out.”
Good to go
Each team has a GPS tracker so the mobile command centre can track their location at all times. The mobile command centre computer uses state-of-the-art GPS tracking and analysis to ensure searches are the most efficient they can be. Every communication and movement is mapped and recorded so the team can continually evolve and learn from every search and rescue call-out. With a potential fear for life, they are reminded of crime scene protocol and with two people to search for who may, or may not be together, six teams set off.
Mapping the way
The search manager for tonight’s exercise is Ian Lowcock, a SENCO teacher in a secondary school. Ian has been a volunteer for the past 25 years. The radio operator is Rob White, who works in health and safety and has been a volunteer for a decade. It’s Rob’s job this evening to monitor radio communications and log each one throughout the search. The teams are told not to check in unless they have something significant to report, in order to keep the airways clear at all times.
A scenes of crime specialist team is mobilised after a blooded stake is found by another search team. Part of the training involves scenes of crime protocol. “There can be instances where we find someone in need of medical attention, but it’s evident there’s been a crime committed,” says Keith. “We can’t steamroller in and potentially destroy evidence, so we’re all trained in how to approach a crime scene, what to do with potential evidence and how to secure a location for a police search while retaining the preservation of life as our top priority.”
While the general public can only request a search and rescue team through the 999 system, the volunteers are on standby 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and can be called out by the police, ambulance, fire or coastguard services. Biannually there are multi-agency training exercises where the emergency services work together. While Dartmoor has no coast, the team are all trained in coastal proficiency and work closely with the coastguard search and rescue team. “We’re often called out to help look for walkers who’ve disappeared on a stretch of coast,” says Keith. “We’re all trained climbers, so we can provide a land search while the coastguard can use the helicopter and continue with a sea search.”
At the scene
Back at the training exercise, a male body has been found. While the cause of death is most likely hanging, the circumstances the body has been found in means that the search team must secure the scene in anticipation of police attendance. Once the police have collected all the evidence they need, the stretcher team will be called in to remove the body. “How a rope is tied in a hanging can tell a lot about the victim,” says Keith. “Volunteers are taught to cut the rope a good few inches above the knot to preserve evidence.”
A sombre situation
With the male casualty located, the team concentrate their efforts on finding the female casualty. The MacInnes stretcher is carried by the support vehicles, which accompany the mobile command centre on every operation. The MacInnes stretcher was developed for mountainous regions and is perfectly at home on the rugged tors of Dartmoor, enabling the team to bring casualties to safety and medical treatment.
Missing person located
The missing female is found with minor injuries. She’s treated on scene by volunteers and an ambulance is requested. The site where the bloodied stake was found is preserved and used for further crime scene training delivered by the police. With the exercise successfully concluded after six hours – three spent working in complete darkness – the teams reconvene at the mobile command centre after being called back by radio operator Rob. The rain which started six hours ago shows no sign of abating and as volunteers take off their wet weather gear and head back to their day jobs, the vehicles are returned to the depot ready for the next call-out.
A REAL CALL OUT
While the team conduct training exercises throughout the year, real call-outs are also documented.
At 16.59pm on 7 August 2015, the team were called by South West Ambulance Service and asked to assist with a casualty beside a river. A female had slipped while walking with friends and sustained a lower leg injury in the Upper Dart Valley, by the River Dart. The area is rugged, with high-sided valley walls sloping down to the river. The ambulance team and Dartmoor rescue team doctor had treated her on site, but the search and rescue team used a Bell stretcher and a series of ropes to relay the casualty up the steep side of the valley to safety and the awaiting ambulance.
The rescue took four hours and 25 team members, and once back at road level the casualty was taken to Derriford Hospital, Plymouth, where she was X-rayed and found to have chipped a bone in her foot during the fall. The team are often tasked with locating and assisting people in hard-to-reach or remote location. Each volunteer is fully trained in emergency first aid and each team carries a basic first aid kit and advanced casualty care kits containing airway treatment and drugs. Volunteers also carry their own personal pack, which must allow them to be self-sufficient on the moor for a period of 24 hours.
For more information on Dartmoor Search and Rescue Ashburton visit dsrtashburton.org.uk.