Becoming a Search and Rescue Technician for DorSAR

We asked one of our newly qualified Search Technicians their take on becoming an operational member of Dorset Search & Rescue. Here is Nancy's candid and insightful response

Why I joined

I’ve always volunteered for something or another. It’s in my nature to help others and I enjoy a challenge and learning new skills. Previously I’ve been a Special Constable alongside Dorset’s finest and helped out with various events including being the Volunteer Coordinator for Weymouth Ironman 70.3 a couple of years ago. While my son was growing up all these were slotted in around bringing him up and working full time. I then started training for triathlons and that had a huge impact on my life. I’ve suffered with anxiety and depression ever since I can remember and soon discovered exercise was the best therapy ever. I met some amazing people during this time. One of which led me to join DorSAR.

Rab was a selfless individual, always helping others meet their goals and often sacrificing his own. I only knew him for a couple of years but he had a huge impact on me – made me believe in myself and always making me laugh. Unfortunately he decided to check out of this life far earlier than his friends and family would have liked. A friend and I went out looking for him the night he went missing. I was absolutely blown away by the support given by people who didn’t know him – DorSAR, The Veterans Hub, All Call Signs to name a few.

The next day through discussions with mutual friends I made the decision to do something positive in memory of him. I’d heard of DorSAR previously but wasn’t fully aware that they were a voluntary search charity. I registered my interest for the next training session. A few months later I was invited to an information evening at their HQ in Crossways.

I was made to feel really welcome and met some lovely people. There was no doubt that this was the perfect way for me to give something back to these volunteers who selflessly give so much time to search for others.

Training

Nancy during her final assessment

Training to become a Search and Rescue Technician takes several weeks. In order to become fully operational you are requested to attend every training session and complete a Fitness test and Practical Search Assessment Day. The training is provided by others in the team and it was up to the trainees to ensure we understood all points raised. Who knew there were so many ways to search an area and what impact does the Northumberland Rain Dance have on locating someone (or something)!

Training included, Search Skills, Theory and Practical, Navigation, Water Safety, Communications, Manual Handling, Medic training.

On the practical sessions be prepared to get wet, cold, muddy and have the occasional face plant – usually when someone is watching! Team work is imperative, no egos are required, everyone is there to look out for one another which I truly aspire to. We were all listened to and had our points of view considered before we made a team decision. If anyone missed any items that we were searching for it was discussed and reasons why we may have missed them clearly explained.

The Assessment Day covers a day and evening. Ours was on 9th Nov, It was cold, wet and very muddy. We were all soaked through after the first assessment. The sun came out for a bit and made the next part a little easier. Then the night search came round. Nothing can prepare you for how this feels. In the pitch black in the middle of a forest with a couple of search teams looking for a ‘misper’ (missing person). It’s eerie and really hard to work out how to walk in a straight line (compass skills come in handy here). It’s difficult to work out where to put your feet and stay in line with your team mates. Regular communication is important to ensure all areas are fully searched. If anything is found we ‘Hold the Line’ and remain still until told to continue. On our training exercise we found the misper and as a team worked out an extraction method to the rescue vehicle. So much of this is about team work and communication. One top tip – don’t use a really bright head torch as it blinds everyone else! (oops!)

Uniform and Kit

As a Trainee Technician you get a hi-vis but need to provide your own suitable clothing and kit. As a minimum you need walking boots, trousers and a decent rain proof jacket. Gaiters are good and a stick to beat the brambles with. Definitely worth ordering a decent torch via DorSAR as they get a good discount. Initially a small rucksack is good – I’ve got a raincover for mine but if not use waterproof bags for everything including your phone, dry clothes, gloves etc. You need water and snacks. Once you pass your training you are provided with a Jacket, polo shirt and Hi Vis with DorSAR logos.

Active Searching

I attended my first live search fairly soon after becoming operational. I underestimate how long it would take me to get prepared. Not so much getting my kit ready (you are advised to do this at the end of each search ready for next time) but other things at home that needed doing in a bit of a hurry. EG shopping, moving appointments and other tasks. I arrived later than I intended. There was then a huge amount of waiting around – something I hadn’t really expected. ‘Hurry up and Wait’ As part of a team we were tasked with a fairly large area to clear. Some of which we could do relatively fast but others took clambering over fences, through bracken and odd shaped fields. As night fell it became a lot harder but you can’t rush clearing an area just to beat the daylight. Back to the RV and waiting again for further instructions. Some people left and others arrived. The Police provided Pizza – 20 of them at least! That helped morale. No further intelligence was forthcoming and I had work to do the following day so stood down early evening and returned home.

Expectations v Reality

Firstly the people are lovely, welcoming and supportive both during training, searches and outside of that.

We have been called to searches and then stood down fairly soon after. I would like to attend more searches than I’ve been able to but due to work, home and personal commitments have only been able to attend a couple so far. I’ve set myself an approximate radius of attending searches to about an hour’s travelling. This will depend on the time of day also. Although a lot of searches are for mispers, no two searches are the same. There is a lot of waiting around prior to being told where to search which can feel frustrating. Choice of clothing is a challenge as you can’t really stop to undress / change clothing once out on a search. Your health is also important – don’t attend a search if you feel unwell as this can hamper the search. This is hard for me as I feel obliged to attend if I’m available. I try and fit in searches to suit my home life but also am committed to being an active member. I struggle with night driving and searching so prefer to a assist during daylight hours where possible.

Would I recommend anyone becoming a Search and Rescue Technician?

Most Definitely. I’ve learnt new skills. Feel part of a ‘family’ and hopefully be able to make a difference to others.

Words by Nancy de Beer