Sussex Search Teams

Sussex Neighbourhood Watch Search Teams & Sussex Community Search Team

In a nutshell, what is this initiative?

The aim is to enable Sussex Police to call out numerous fully trained volunteer searchers, at short notice and very little cost, to help safely restore missing persons to their family and friends or bring closure as soon as possible, without significantly detracting from other important police activities. In a secondary capacity, Search Team volunteers also assist police by being ‘stooges’ during police training and exercises, can assist with mass casualty hospital documentation, and many are qualified to drive police vehicles.

When did it start?

On 1 July 2000 an 8-year-old girl, Sarah Payne, was abducted from the Littlehampton area, and she was not seen again until her body was found 15 miles away in the Pulborough area 16 days later. During those 16 days there was an intensive and highly publicised police search, and countless concerned members of the public turned out to assist.

The involvement of untrained volunteers can cause problems because they are disorganised, require supervision, may not cover the area satisfactorily, are unlikely to keep records of what has been done, have the potential to inadvertently destroy forensic evidence, may put themselves at risk, and they could include an offender.

As a result of meetings between Sussex Police (SusPol) and Neighbourhood Watch (NW), it was agreed that SusPol would help NW to form a Search Team of trained volunteers who could be called out by SusPol or neighbouring forces, as and when needed, to assist in the search for missing vulnerable people and evidence.

The NW Search Team concept, which is unique to Sussex, was so successful that it was expanded into three such Teams, based in North, West and East Sussex.

Each can operate independently and locally, or for major searches can be combined to cover a wide area in a very short space of time.

Who is involved?

The key partner is Sussex Police, with support from the Police & Crime Commissioner. The police initiate the call out process in appropriate cases, and provide oversight direction of searches. Other search resources can and do operate alongside NW volunteers, including Sussex Search & Rescue (SusSAR), and ALSAR Search Dogs Sussex. Should operations occur outside Sussex then the teams happily partner with their sister organisations. There is also co-operation with Sussex 4×4 Response.

What does the project do?

The primary role is thorough searching for missing high risk vulnerable people. This may extend to include missing property. The Teams are called out by SusPol as and when needed, usually at the request/recommendation of a Police Search Adviser (PolSA). Searchers will be asked to attend a specific location at a specific time, and once on site they will receive a police briefing about the required tasks.

In the field each unit is usually sub-divided into teams consisting of a qualified Team Leader and about six trained searchers, one of whom will be a certificated First Aider, in case of injuries to searchers or a casualty encountered amongst members of the public. Other individuals have skills in controlling operations, radio, map reading and GPS. There is also a Control function, which co-ordinates all activities.

The Search Teams are searchers and not necessarily ‘finders’. Police will target the searchers at the areas most likely to contain a missing person but the searchers will not find that person if he/she is elsewhere. However, by enabling the police to gain about 99% confidence that the missing person is not there, they can safely move their enquiries to a new phase. Failure to locate a missing person or their property can therefore constitute success by providing key intelligence.

In the event of a search SusPol can deploy the volunteer search assets for searching and then use police staff to do police work, which may include investigations and house-to-house enquiries. The most appropriately skilled people for the tasks can then be deployed in the optimum way.

Searching can be very labour intensive, hence trained volunteer searchers can provide the large volume of searchers that police forces can’t, without detracting from other police tasks. With large volumes of trained searchers available, fresh people can be rotated in for extended searches. Police do not need to maintain such large and costly resources on standby on their payroll – they have an ‘insurance option’ available instead.

What is the role of Neighbourhood Watch specifically?

In the early days all volunteers were NW members, and even today the membership includes many NW members but this is no longer a requirement. The Teams have always been run effectively as a parallel organisation to mainstream NW, as specialist skills and training are involved. This level of specialisation is reflected in the recent evolution into the now independent Sussex Community Search Team.

What training is provided for volunteers?

Every volunteer undergoes an NPPV Level 1 security check and basic training, which can be done in a few hours, a blend of theory and practical. In the field less experienced people will be mixed with very experienced people for ongoing learning and support.

Experienced searchers will be given the opportunity to gain specialist skills through further training, such as Team Leader and First Aid. Courses are also run in map reading, GPS and radio techniques.

Many volunteers holding driving licences have been trained and assessed to hold Basic Driving Authority to drive any police vehicle within the normal traffic laws. This is very valuable when a carrier is needed at short notice to move personnel or essential equipment around the very large county.

Very experienced searchers can be selected and trained to become Trainers and/or Controllers.

Additionally, every volunteer is required to attend at least one live callout or one major Exercise every year, to maintain their competence and commitment.

Equally, many volunteers have valuable skill sets from their other lives, and they bring these to share with the Team. These can include Management, IT, communications and medical.

How many volunteers are involved?

Currently about 150 very committed, reasonably fit and active volunteers. Many of these are Neighbourhood Watch members, although the exact number is not known.

How is it funded?

Initially the Teams were given a grant, but in later years they became responsible for finding their own funds, with occasional grants of money or resources from SusPol. With the formation of the SCST SusPol provided a significant grant by way of working capital.

How have ways of working changed over time?

After 15 years of successful operations, amid changes taking place within Sussex Police it was agreed that the three Sussex Neighbourhood Watch Search Teams would transform as from October 2015 into the independent Sussex Community Search Team. SCST is a highly trained, very efficient unit, using the best effective practice gained over the previous years. As no two searches are the same, they are constantly honing their skills and techniques to provide the best possible outcome in the given circumstances.

In recent years they have also assisted police with their own training and exercises, for example, by providing a large crowd to test event security, and trusted volunteers to ‘riot’ during public order training. Some members have also been trained to lead teams processing mass casualty documentation as might follow a major incident.

What are their plans for the future?

Following the recent reconstruction SCST in a period of consolidation. Police Forces are also undergoing changes and SCST the search Teams will adapt as needed. It is possible that in future NW members may be requested to take part in Community Resilience activities or other urgent situations.

On one occasion a seriously ill teenager was successfully located in woodland after two days of searching. Their family was extremely grateful for SCST’s the Search Teams’ assistance.

How is it evaluated?

Training design and delivery is audited by SusPol.

During search operations there is a well-established police routine which volunteers are trained to follow and document. Immediate feedback is given by the officers on the ground, and also later following police assessment. Additionally the SCST Executive Committee periodically reviews all activities.

An award-winning initiative

In June 2013 the Sussex Neighbourhood Watch Search Teams were announced as the winners of the Innovation category in the inaugural Neighbourhood & Home Watch Network Awards, which were held in the Palace of Westminster.

In June 2014 Search Teams were also announced as Recipients of The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, and consequently Derek Pratt, Chair of the North Sussex Search Team and SCST, was invited to a Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace. This prestigious Award was presented by HRH The Duke of Gloucester during a Royal visit to Crawley in November 2014.

On one occasion a seriously ill teenager was successfully located in woodland after two days of searching. Their family was extremely grateful for the Search Teams’ assistance.


Files Attached

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  • Case-Study-Sussex-Search-Teams.pdf