Matter of life and death: What is it like to volunteer for Avon and Somerset Search and Rescue?

PUBLISHED: 17:00 13 May 2018

ASSAR tracking training. East Harptree Woods, Bristol, UK, April 8, 2018. Picture: Tony McNicol

ASSAR tracking training. East Harptree Woods, Bristol, UK, April 8, 2018. Picture: Tony McNicol

© Tony McNicol

Dangerous clifftops and freezing cold lakes are just two places volunteers from the Avon and Somerset Search and Rescue (ASSAR) unit has to negotiate to look for missing or distressed people.

Avon Seawalls, Bristol, UK, November 20, 2016. Picture: Tony McNicolAvon Seawalls, Bristol, UK, November 20, 2016. Picture: Tony McNicol

To mark 40 years since the inception of the Cheddar branch, Mercury reporter Eleanor Young joined the team of volunteers during search training.

HISTORY

There were originally two branches of the ASSAR, based in Avon and Cheddar, working under Avon and Somerset Constabulary.

Both the Cheddar Gorge Cliff Rescue Team (CGCRT) and Avon Rocks Rescue Team, which formed in 1976, worked in parallel and, over time, the same volunteers worked across both teams – they merged in 1990 to create the Avon and Somerset Cliff Rescue.

ASSAR then branched out into gaining its searching capabilities in 2000 and water rescue in 2006.

The group now has more than 50 members, 35 of which are active to help local authorities and emergency services.


BUSY YEAR FOR ASSAR

This year has been one of the busiest years so far for the charity after responding to 17 call-outs between November and March.

Last year there were 26 incidents.

The team had three dog rescues in the space of a couple of days in February from Cheddar Gorge, where two were rescued alive, and also took part in water and land searches for missing Highbridge man Dean Tate – who was missing for more than a month before his body was found on Stert Island, off Burnham.

The team has been called out 409 times – 90 of which were standbys – since January 2003 which has been the equivalent of 18,216 man-hours.


ASSAR tracking training. East Harptree Woods, Bristol, UK, April 8, 2018. Picture: Tony McNicolASSAR tracking training. East Harptree Woods, Bristol, UK, April 8, 2018. Picture: Tony McNicol

TRAINING

I had the pleasure of meeting with volunteers from ASSAR and seeing what goes into finding a missing person.

My training day started with an early wake-up call on a cold and wet Sunday morning in East Harptree where we learned we would be focusing on tracking.

We started out by examining the traits of footprints. I went in to this exercise thinking all you needed was the shoe size and the footprint but there is far more to it. We had to identify broken and damaged foliage, look at the depth of the print and how best to determine the direction as well as looking at stride lengths’.

Then it was on to a crime scene scenario. When looking for a missing person, something as simple as a mislaid glove could strike the attention of an ASSAR volunteer – but the challenge was getting to it without contaminating any evidence.

I saw how the team used scuff marks and the most unlikely path of entry and exit to ensure the scene was not contaminated, should the police need to investigate it further.

ASSAR tracking training. East Harptree Woods, Bristol, UK, April 8, 2018. Picture: Tony McNicolASSAR tracking training. East Harptree Woods, Bristol, UK, April 8, 2018. Picture: Tony McNicol

We then put our training to the test.

We were challenged to track a runner through the woods as far as we could using the skills we had learned.

As it was training we had more time to focus on what we had learned and look at footprints in more details but in a life-or-death scenario the ASSAR team need to work quickly but effectively.

Hugh Price, who has volunteered with the charity for more than six years, said attention to detail is ‘deadly serious’.

He added: “The real fear we all have is we will go past something and miss it, maybe something just up the clearing or a bit of bracken which is bent back or broken.

“If we miss one thing, it could mean someone’s life. You have to be silent and use all of your senses including your smell and hearing.

ASSAR tracking training. East Harptree Woods, Bristol, UK, April 8, 2018. Picture: Tony McNicolASSAR tracking training. East Harptree Woods, Bristol, UK, April 8, 2018. Picture: Tony McNicol

“When we search we have a (imaginary) cube around us. We will walk along and look down, up and then all around us to take everything in.”

While completing the training, the team members had to don their heavy hill kits, which held clothes, sleeping bags, a group shelter, slings, harnesses, metal work, lights and food.

Jim Hardcastle, who led the training session, said: “You have to be ready for every scenario.

“Sometimes we are starting in the middle of nowhere without our main correspondence vehicle. We are all mobile and need to be flexible to operate from the back of our cars.”

ASSAR is run solely through donations and it costs thousands of pounds a year to operate and replace equipment.

To find out more or to donate, visit www.assar.org.uk

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