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What happens when someone goes missing? Volunteer SAR activation explained

It's been three years since the establishment of the South East Saskatchewan Search and Rescue (SESKSAR) chapter of Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Saskatchewan (SARSAV) – a volunteer organization trained to become a resource for policing agencies in cases when someone goes missing. Mercury is looking into how the chapter gets activated in case someone goes missing.
South East Saskatchewan Search and Rescue chapter logo.

Southeast Sask. -- It's been three years since the establishment of the South East Saskatchewan Search and Rescue (SESKSAR) chapter of Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Saskatchewan (SARSAV) – a volunteer organization trained to become a resource for policing agencies in cases when someone goes missing.

SESKSAR covers the entire southeast corner of the province, and has a number of members professionally trained and equipped to respond to a call day or night at any time of the year to assist with search and rescue operations. However, unless the chapter is activated, SESKSAR members are not authorized to participate in the operation.

The Mercury spoke to RCMP Cpl. George Riffel, Estevan Police Chief Richard Lowen, SARSAV president Bobbi Buchanan, and SESKSAR president Katia Bigney, who explained when and how the SESKSAR chapter is activated if someone from the area goes missing.

SESKSAR can be requested as a resource by the RCMP or municipal police, depending on where the emergency has occurred, however, it doesn't happen instantly. When an RCMP detachment or municipal police get a call of a missing person, the first step is their investigation.

If a missing person is reported in a city, municipal police look at the circumstances to determine, whether the outer resources are needed.

“We would follow general investigative procedure,” Lowen said. “It would start with the patrol officers going out to meet with the witnesses, and/or search the area locally. Again, it depends on the circumstances, if a missing person was reported outside, or on a trip, or away, or within the city.

“If it's within the city, we start internally with an investigation, and then weigh the risk and how many people have to be notified whether that's media or public support that we're looking for. All those things will be examined by the officers attending in the general patrol area.”

If a person went missing within the city, and the municipal police have an area of a search, they are the agency responsible. If volunteer SAR resources are required, the municipal police would notify the provincial emergency communications centre to activate SARSAV chapter(s), and they would start working together to determine search area and proceed with further steps. 

The initial process is similar for the RCMP. First of all, the local detachment investigators have got to make sure that the person is actually missing and that the situation reported meets the criteria of a missing person investigation. If it does and resources from outside the local detachment are required, they contact the RCMP District Management Team to get information and further directions.

"They then call one of our on-call search managers. Sometimes that's for advice, sometimes that's for activation. That's a case-by-case evaluation that we make. But the detachment maintains control of the investigation, and that has to be ongoing," Riffel explained.

When they make that call to the district, the district either agrees or disagrees that search and rescue is an appropriate resource to call in. The search manager first decides whether or not the situation meets the criteria to deploy. And second, depending on the nature of the investigation, if it is something where it's possible to safely use the volunteer resources. Many factors are taken into consideration before trained volunteers can be called in.

The search manager assesses any potential risks associated with the situation, checks if it's somebody that has a history of violence, or if they're fleeing, or if they have access to weapons, or have mental health issues, etc. If the risks are high, then only police members are used. Besides, if the case is sensitive, where there's a criminal investigation ongoing, the situation keeps changing, or if it's a matter of possible scene contamination, or just the information can't be released as much, then the volunteer SAR probably won't be brought in.

"If we are in a position that the volunteers can be used, then our search manager decides on resources, based on the area, the type of search, terrain, weather, whether we're calling snowmobiles … or whatever is required … Do we need 20 people, do we need three people, what do we need?" Riffel explained.

SARSAV is activated by the RCMP "F" Division GSAR search manager or the municipal police service designate of requesting authority having jurisdiction via phone to the provincial emergency communications centre, requesting the resources they need. The established procedure is for the nearest three SARSAV chapters to activate, but the authority having jurisdiction may request only their local SAR team or specialized resources such as trackers as they see fit. The AHJ may indicate that additional resources from Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency and/or more than just the closest chapter may or may not be required.

The search manager sets up date, time and location for muster, and then attends the location with police members. Once the SAR teams and other support resources are called in, their task is to assist with the operation, but the investigation itself is the responsibility of the local police investigating unit that stays in contact with the family and reports to the media, and thus to the public when it's the time to do so. The search manager maintains control of the search operation, while RCMP or municipal police continue to investigate using all incoming information.

Riffel noted that their first goal is to analyze the situation to ensure that they are making fact-based decisions and then proceed with the investigation and all further steps needed. The RCMP or municipal police will be the ones who have the fullest information and use it most efficiently in SAR operations. However, from the civilians' perspective, what's being done by police agencies and/or volunteer SAR may not always look this way.

"The RCMP or any police service is not going to be able to communicate every detail to the public, so the public's not always working with the most accurate knowledge. The public doesn't know every single piece of the investigation, they're working with a lot of guesses and speculations. And that's not accurate, so the public's perception which usually involves emotions, [often spread through social media], doesn't really add up to evidence or facts that we're going to make decisions based on," Riffel explained.

There are no general criteria as to when a person is considered missing because every case is unique and has to be investigated first.

"We could be calling a search within five minutes if we know that it's a toddler that's run away or something extreme like that. But if it's somebody that's just turned their phone off for a little bit, or somebody that's got a habit of leaving and showing up at somebody else's house, well, then, three hours later, they're probably going to end up at that house again. We don't do knee-jerk reactions; we have to investigate and base our decisions and actions on facts and changing information along the way. And every case is different," Riffel said.

The same goes for the activation of the volunteer search and rescue group(s). Those resources might be very helpful in one situation, and not needed in another case.

"We're not going to call in a ton of resources when we don't know what we need or if we need them, so as we gain information, we make different decisions," Riffel pointed out.