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OSRT - Stepping Missing Persons Searches Up to The Next Level of Effectiveness

A child disappears from a campground. A senior with dementia wanders away from home. A teenager leaves a late-night party and drops off the map. These are all live incidents that occurred in Ohio and the successful searches for each have several critical aspects in common.

All-too-often we tend to approach missing persons searches in a “Ready, Fire, Aim” brute force manner. Police usually arrive on scene first, along with families. Frequently, fire services are close on their heels. It’s only after a day or two of fruitless searching that more comprehensively trained search teams are called upon.

There’s a more structured – and more successful – way to approach the physical search for a missing person. Realistically, that structure is always customized to the specific incident, the lost individual, and the environment in play.  Also, always recognize that law enforcement will, in all probability, conduct an investigative search in parallel with the physical search.

Consider the following framework used by the Ohio Special Response Search Team (OSRT), in assisting Agencies Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) in missing persons incidents.  Note: OSRT does not usurp authority. As per the Incident Command System, incident control remains with the AHJ, with OSRT operating as manpower and in an advisory capacity.

Establish Incident Containment - Immediately upon notification of a missing individual, the OSRT search and rescue (SAR) responder works with the AHJ to establish a containment perimeter around the most likely environment. The size of the containment perimeter is calculated based on multiple factors; from the length of the missing person’s stride to the terrain, to the time since they were last seen. The object is to narrow the search field.

Conduct Rapid Search – As soon as qualified search personnel begin to arrive, an experienced SAR group conducts a high speed pass through the incident area to identify and detail/GPS-mark the more obvious signs of the missing person’s passage. In some rare instances, the rapid search will actually find the lost soul.

Call Out The Dogs – It’s critical to call in search K-9s at the first opportunity – before dozens of people tramp through the area, dispersing the missing person’s scent. Ensure that any search K-9 is credentialed by the International Police Work Dog Association or another credible credential program. Also, the K-9 handler should be credentialed in SAR to ensure they understand and follow accepted SAR procedures – especially evidence preservation. Don’t forget to isolate scent articles. Store in paper bags to preserve sent, and recognize that these items are frequently used as evidence, so track chain of custody.

Lost Person Behavioral Analysis & Questionnaire – Depending on the AHJ preparatory documentation, OSRT’s search officer, or an experienced designee, conducts a detailed Lost Person Questionnaire with the family and a representative of the AHJ. The information acquired in the brief interview enables OSRT search personnel to conduct a Lost Person Behavioral Analysis based on data in the International Search and Rescue Incident Database (ISRID), a statistical framework utilizing over 50,000 lost person incidents in 41 categories. With this information, we can accurately predict probable key locations where the lost soul might be found or tracked. (The Lost Person Behavioral Analysis has delivered an excellent success rate in predicting potential locations for lost persons in hundreds of searches nation-wide.)

Conduct A Structured Search – OSRT utilizes carefully structured search patterns in an effort to ensure that the maximum area of the search environment is thoroughly covered. Through use of satellite imagery, secure team communications systems, and real-time monitoring of the ongoing positions of all OSRT search personnel and K-9s, the incident is divided up into multiple areas and search activities are clearly documented for later reference. As an added benefit, OSRT personnel are trained in evidence preservation, carefully GPS-pinning any items located in the field.

Coordinate Spontaneous Volunteers – As a real world consequence of lost person searches, spontaneous volunteers tend to simply show up on scene. These well-intentioned individuals can represent a massive drain on law enforcement and fire operations personnel. OSRT members are capable of assisting the AHJ in managing these volunteers. In a 2021 incident, OSRT documented and coordinated over 200 volunteers in a successful search. This service frees up police and fire to focus on their own specialties.

Incident Status Reporting – OSRT’s structured command and control search process tracks a wide range of search criteria and details through live incident mapping. This system provides law enforcement and/or fire command with comprehensive maps of areas searched along with degree of coverage – showing tracks of individual searchers as well as K-9s.

About the Author – Alan Plastow is Captain of the Northeast Ohio Units of the Ohio Special Response Search and Rescue Team. He is certified in Land Search and Rescue Operations by the U. S. Air Force and U.S. Coast Guard as well as a SARTech II through the National Association for Search and Rescue. He’s also credentialed in Wide Area Search Techniques, Lost Person Behavior Analysis, and as a Search Team Leader by the Mountain Rescue Association. Al serves on a Child Abduction Response Team with focused training via EMA, Homeland Security, NCJTC, NFA, ASTM-2209, and more.

Interested in becoming part of the team? OSRT is constantly accepting volunteers. While most people want to become searchers, we also need support personnel who can work from home. These include individuals to assist in marketing, recruitment, and general back office tasks. In essence it means you can serve without becoming a ground pounder.

Ohio Special Response Team (OSRT) – OSRT is a multifaceted ESF-9 response team deploying primarily to search and rescue incidents in woodlands, suburban, and urban environments as well as disaster response, K-9 searches, and low/high angle rope rescue. OSRT functions in support of law enforcement and fire with 68 members in 7 Units throughout Ohio. OSRT members are trained in SAR as well as ICS Operations to function as force multipliers wherever there’s a need.

Image: Greg Grove monitors the command and communications unit to enter GPS data and track/position search team members in real time as they, and their K-9s, move through the terrain.


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