As some of you are probably aware, I recently applied to join the Wiltshire Search and Rescue (WILSAR) charity as I felt drawn towards the work they do, whatever the time, whatever the weather and whatever the scenario. Well today I had my first taste of it, a training session down in South-East Wiltshire.
It started down at Salisbury at 9:30am Sunday morning, a good 1:20hr drive away, so a fairly early morning. Thankfully Wiltshire has a lot of beautiful scenary between Swindon and Salisbury, so it was a pleasent drive in the gorgeous sunshine.
We all met up in the designated Industrial Estate and all signed in. There were 4 completely new people training today, myself being one of them. All of us from Swindon. In total there were about 30 people, all in hi-viz jackets, so we definately didn’t blend into the local Salisbury bussle.
Once all the equipment was setup (and the all important brew kit was running), the team leaders were called together to receive their initial brief of the situation, before relaying this information down to their team members. Surprisingly we were split into search teams of 3, I thought the teams would be considerably bigger in number, but thats probably a Hollywood influence. We were briefed by our Team Leader, John (who looked like a member of a SWAT team), that we were looking for a missing person suffering an untreated head injury, by the name of Nigel. He explained the information he was told, including physical description, last known location, physical state of the individual and various other details. Nigel didn’t have his car keys or phone on him, so the police couldn’t perform a “cell-phone ping” to triangulated his position. I didn’t realise police did this until recently when Sian O’Callaghan went missing in our local area, and her phone was quickly traced to a nearby forest. I thought this was only done in very high-priority cases, but John said its very common to narrow down the initial search location.
I took up the roll of team navigater, mainly because I didn’t know how to use the radios, wasn’t trained on the first aid kit and wasn’t a team leader. So maps it was! I hadn’t done any map work since orienteering PE lessons probably 10 years ago. Oh well, we we’re in a industrial estate, plenty of land marks and perfect visibility. A doddle.
We were given a search sector to cover, based on the ‘300 rule’. This is to cover the immediate area surrounding the last known position. Our sector covered a built up section of the estate, so lots of car dealerships, warehouses and offices.
We set off, all geared up (radios, water, first aid kits, notebooks, maps etc) and started searching through the area. Normally, John explained, low gates and fences would be vaulted to search the premises, but as it was only a training exercise we didn’t want to annoy any land owners so locked gates and clear boundary fences were our limits. We still had a good poke around behind buildings, under vehicles and even a quick peak into wheelie bins. If we could access an area without climbing a fence or gate, we checked it. Slow and thorough work.
Nigel wasn’t in our sector. Or more accurate, he wasn’t located in our sector. I was told you never say an area is ‘cleared’, as you can never 100% guarantee an area is checked. Plus as soon as you leave he could wonder back into it and collapse.
We returned to the control point to mark our sector as completed, a quick in take of water and for John to debrief control on what we found, what areas we couldnt search and so forth.
It turned out some other teams did find some interesting things though. One team found a very nice guitar and case slung over a wall, while another team found a safety deposit box full of cash and car keys! Something obviously stolen from a car dealership and then dumped. These were dropped off at the nearby police station, not kept for cash-injection to the charity. Who’d have thought it!
We were then re-issued with another sector, a larger area consisting of more industrial estate, main roads and a river (the Nagger if my map skills are remembered correctly). We were all kitted out with water PPE (personal protection equipment), which just made the long-sleeved non-breathable hi-viz jacket that extra bit warmed in the 22+ degree heat. We conducted our urban search much the same as our previous sector, although I did have a lovely chat with some work local workers to gain access to their land. They were more than welcome to allow me on, just seemed rather confused as to why I was wearing thick trousers, boots, long sleeved hi-viz jacket, a life vest and carrying a safety while members of the public were walking past in flip-flips and shorts. Eventually after the urban land was checked we made it to the Nagger banks. John gave us a few specific instructions on dealing with rivers, the right type of formation to use and a bit of health and safety. No search and rescue team wants to have to rescue one of their own as well! I was instructed not to search the river, but rather keep the designated searcher aware of any dangers coming up that they might stumble upon while focusing on the river.
The Nagger took us into a small wooded area and then I did actually have to work on navigation. Its not easy to locate yourself on a map when all you can see is trees and a river, but we successfully checked the forest (with only one back tracking moment needed) and started checking the last urban area of the sector.
While I was searching behind some offices our radio operator picked up the message we were to return to the control point. No further info. This apparently happens when either the missing person has been located, or new information (such as a sighting, items located, or a phone ping) requires us to relocate to best search an area.
On returning to the control point we were told that Nigel had been found and that it was ‘endex’. (I finally worked this out to mean End of Exercise).
With a little bit more debriefing (and a few coffees and cakes, which there were lots of) the teams all arrived back and the packing up began. I was assured that the weather was very rarely this good, the cakes weren’t usually in this abundance and the day was rarely this short (it was only 1pm), but it was enjoyable, I felt I learnt lots and will definately be returning.
WILSAR is currently running at full strength, but that doesnt mean training of new members stop. So with further training coming up including navigation, steep slope techniques and water safety, there is definately lots more to learn.
Hopefully after todays performance I’ll be invited back, for today has done nothing to remove this charities work from my heart.