Cheshire Search and Rescue provide the police with vital expertise, searching 24/7 against the clock for vulnerable missing people.
This team of specialised volunteers are permanently on call and fund themselves to search in all conditions to reunite loved ones.
But of all the challenges they have faced, Covid 19 proved the most arduous – with little opportunity to fundraise causing reserves to dwindle.
Rachel Smith, 50, a full time paramedic, is team secretary and active search member for Cheshire Search and Rescue, a registered charity.
Could you explain how Cheshire Search and Rescue is activated?
We receive a call from Cheshire police when they need urgent assistance with a high risk missing person. Up to six people a day can go missing in the county. It could be a child who has run away, a child missing in Delamere Forest, an elderly person with dementia, or someone who is suicidal. If we get the call it’s an emergency and the clock is ticking.
We search all 904 square mile of terrain in Cheshire, including towns and cities, moorland, forest and steep grounds. We do have flood and water capabilities because there are lots of waterways in the county.
How is the team then formed?
A text message immediately goes out to our 70 operational members. Everybody is on call day and night throughout the year. Those immediately available respond and a team is formed and we get straight to work. All our members are chomping at the bit to help when they can. We respond to 30-50 call outs a year.
Cheshire Search and Rescue was on the TV recently. Is it all excitement?
No! We are often wet and cold, searching in challenging terrain through mud and water, in the dark, with ever changing instructions. It’s physically demanding, exhausting and not for the faint hearted. We have had call outs on Christmas Day and volunteers can miss family birthdays. There are sacrifices.
On screen you often have a happy ending. But real life isn’t always like that.
What kind of background do the volunteers come from?
We have people from all walks of life – doctors, decorators, solicitors, military servicemen, teachers, HGV drivers, people between work, students, retired people. We all muck in and do whatever needs doing. There are no egos.
Is it difficult to recruit members?
We are very fortunate, having 150 people on the waiting list to join our team. Potential recruits are invited to an open evening, they take part in a realistic search and rescue exercise. Only then can they make a formal application so they are coming in with their eyes wide open. All are trained in Advanced First Aid, communication and navigation. The team today is a far cry from its origins.
The charity was formed in 2004 following the disappearance of a teenage girl. It started as a group of community spirited individuals with high vis jackets and torches and evolved into a very professional set up.
Being a member of the team is a huge commitment. What does it involve?
People are often surprised to hear team members are entirely self funded. They pay £10 a month subscription to cover basic running costs like keeping our vehicles on the road, they buy their own boots and kit. They are provided with a waterproof jacket and polo shirt and basic essentials. All members agree to help with fundraising activities when they sign up. This can take the form of trolley packing at supermarkets, giving talks to community groups, sponsored events and first aid training.
Covid resulted in a spike in callouts. Why is that?
A lot of our callouts are for people who are depressed and suicidal. Lots of people feel cut off during lockdown. They may be lonely, facing financial difficulties, worried about job loss, or struggling with relationship pressures. Our other main group are the elderly, maybe with dementia. They are likely to have lost some support too.
How has Covid 19 affected fundraising?
The team costs over £50 a day to run, without call outs and extras like updating search equipment and vehicles. Ordinarily members are out shaking tins and raising money – none of which we have been able to do for months. That leaves a big hole. We desperately need to raise funds to remain operational. The police don’t have any equivalent resource to call on and this could adversely affect the outcome of a search.
Cheshire Community Foundation funded vital PPE at the start of the pandemic. Without it would you have been able to operate?
Absolutely not. CCF stepped in at the start of the pandemic to kit us out and it was a life line for us to continue working, for which we are incredibly grateful. Mounting a rescue in full PPE is hard work but we just get on with it and get the job done.
How do you deal with the inevitable unhappy ending to a search?
It’s always upsetting to find a body at the end of a search. But it is at least some closure for the family of the deceased. They can put the pieces together and it helps with the grieving process. Without the body they may have lived with the turmoil of not knowing if their loved one is alive or dead.
And the more positive outcomes?
Finding someone alive and well is a feeling like no other. Knowing how desperately worried their loved ones have been and how delighted and relieved they will be to know they are safe is the best feeling. Often people have been missing overnight. One elderly lady we found recently was very lost, cold and confused. I slowly warmed her up whilst we waited for an ambulance and provided reassurance. She was reunited with her family hours later.
You’ve been doing this for nine years on top of a demanding full time job as a paramedic at the coal face against the fight against Covid 19. What keeps you searching?
Life as a paramedic is full on right now. We have winter pressure on top of an increase in patients because of Covid. That creates a level of anxiety but it is what I am trained to do. As well as being team secretary I am the only female search manager and and the only female member of the management committee. I dedicate about 20 hours a month to the team. But when I’m on a search at 10pm, it’s icy on the ground, sleet is falling in my face, I’m losing my boots in mud, plans are changing rapidly, yet I still see the camaraderie of a team searching in these conditions for someone they don’t even know, I know I am in the right company!
With thanks to Sue Carol for this article.