Masters in the art of searching
Posting about missing airman Corrie McKeague on his Facebook group was not enough for Andy Pearson.
Reading that Corrie’s phone had ‘pinged’ a mast near Barton Mills led Andy to try and organise a public search in the area until the police asked him to stop because of the risk of disturbing a crime scene if anything had happened to the airman there.
But it was still the final spur Andy needed to join Suffolk Lowland Search and Rescue (Sulsar)whose volunteers have been helping the Corrie search police by carrying out searches across West Suffolk.
Andy, 58, of Folly Road, Mildenhall, runs the Mildenhall People Facebook Group and lives near chairman Andy King and his brother Martin, so he knew about the group, which has just under 40 active volunteers.
Andy P said: “I was looking for something to put my energies into and thought I might make inquiries.
“At the time I was frustrated – I wanted to do something to help but there wasn’t anything I could do. I thought on it and thought the thing to do was join Sulsar.”
Andy K said: “His timing was perfect – we have two new intakes a year in October and April, so he applied at the right time. Within 10 days he started training.”
Andy P had taken part in public searches in the Lake District but says that while he knew about personal survival in the outdoors, he had no training in what to do ‘if I found someone’.
“I was amazed,” he said. “It’s more like a military operation. A lot of people think Sulsar are ramblers and it’s certainly not that. Everything is done methodically.”
Forget pictures you have seen of lines of searchers going across fields.
Andy K explained: “We don’t search like that. I find those searches unsatisfactory.
“We search in small teams of four to six and a team leader who is highly trained and they will call the shots – the techniques used, how the team is distributed.
“The team leader rarely searches. He’s looking at his team and directing his team.”
If you see a Sulsar team training, the leader is taking note of where they have searched and any ground features, like thickets or dips, they need to return to. They cover the ground faster than you might expect, because they know what they are looking for and how it needs to be done.
Andy K says part of the training is teaching people how to ‘see’ and not just ‘look’. He explained: “I’ll often see something in a field – a deer for example – and people will say ‘how did you do that’. It’s because we ‘see’ while they are looking past it.”
Their searchers and search leaders are trained to standards set by the Association Lowland of Search and Rescue, whose techniques are close to those of Mountain rescue but recognise the differences.
The Andys point out that in mountain areas people tend to say where they are going and there are only limited ways of getting into a highland area. When they get lost they also want to be found.
Andy K added: “With about 50 per cent of mountain rescues they probably have a location, where we, in most cases, have no idea.
“There are two types for us: those who don’t want to be found because they’re suicidal – they’ll even try to avoid search teams. Then there are dementia sufferers who don’t know they’re lost and have no track of time.”
Sulsar also has a boat to search on waterways and is part of the county’s flood response organisation.
The Corrie search is exceptional even by Lowland standards. Andy K says it is the longest search in ALSAR’s history and it has 36 search groups. Sulsar itself has been doing the job for 18 years and Andy K has been a volunteer for 10 years.
All Suffolk’s neighbouring counties have lowland search and rescue organisations and have been helping with the Corrie search when Sulsar needs extra people.
Andy K said: “Because we’re all trained to the same standard they can send one or two across and they intergrate into our teams straight away.
“We try to avoid public searches.”
However, at the request of Corrie’s mum Nicola Urquhart they organised one for him in the Mildenhall area with public volunteers interspersed with trained Sulsar searchers.
Helping to try to find Corrie has also helped Sulsar.
Andy K stressed: “My heart goes out to the family – I can’t imagine what they’re going through.”
But he says it has raised the profile of what these volunteers do, with no Government funding.
“Before Corrie our Facebook page would get somewhere between 500 and 1,000 visitors a week,” he said. “I put a post up on Monday updating people on how training had gone on Sunday and 37,000 people saw it.
“I give talks and if I spoke to a room of 50 people and asked if they had heard of mountain rescue, everyone put their hands up but if I asked if they had heard of lowland rescue, I’d get one. Now I reckon in Suffolk you’d get about half.”
A just giving page started by Lizzie Best to help Sulsar because of its part in the Corrie search raised £7,752 by the time it closed. In addition Sulsar has an Amazon Wish List where people can buy equipment for them, ranging from whistles to a major incident first aid kit.
Local groups also support them with Suffolk Land Rover Club recently donating £10,000 and the Salvation Army making a donation after seeing them at work while providing refreshments at search scenes.
But Andy P is also touched by the number of ordinary people making donations, not least because they both Andys are well known in Mildenhall.
One elderly lady who makes things to sell at Christmas has slipped about £200-worth of donations through their doors, while people regularly drop off bags containing practical items, like instant noodles and soups. Andy P said: “These people need to be thanked for what they do. They can’t search themselves, so they support us in ways they can.”