DEBERT – For every hour a person goes missing, the search area expands exponentially.
That’s why the Colchester Ground Search and Rescue (GSAR), along with others in the province, often call for assistance from their counterparts. Locally, the GSAR lead two successful searches for two missing 12-year-old boys last month, something Tom Fitzpatrick said was a highlight for them.
“We haven’t had any searches in Colchester County in three years,” said Fitzpatrick, Colchester’s search manager and president of the Nova Scotia Ground Search and Rescue. “Our last lost person search was more than three years ago.”
The organization was called out for two missing person searches in one day – one in Halifax and one in the Brookfield area – however the missing 87-year-old woman in Halifax was found before they were deployed.
They were called out to Green Valley, outside Brookfield, around 8:15 p.m., and they managed the search centre through 7:30 the following morning. The missing boy, said Fitzpatrick, was found around noon when he came out of the woods on his own.
“For the first hour someone is missing, the search area is three-and-a-half square kilometres. For the second, it’s nine-and-a-half, then 27,” said Fitzpatrick. “It’s very important we get activated very quickly so we can use our skills, knowledge and tactics. We need to keep the search area as small as possible.”
In most cases, Fitzpatrick says GSAR organizations will utilize certified search dogs, which is why people aren’t deployed into the search area too soon so as to not “flood the area with scent.”
In the Brookfield search, the dog found scent, however it was of the boy’s father, who had been out searching for his son.
The second recent successful search was for a missing 12-year-old boy in Debert, who got lost while doing an orienteering session.
In that case, Fitzpatrick said the organization involved had done their own search of the area for the boy, and called the boy’s parents. There was a call out for searches on social media, before police and GSAR were notified.
“They flooded the area with their scent, eliminating us from using our skilled techniques. It probably delayed us by about three hours, and that happens more than we would like.”
Fitzpatrick said there’s a misconception with the public as to when they can call police about a missing person. Many television shows portray a 24-hour period before police should be called, but Fitzpatrick said that’s not the case in Canada.
“There’s no specific timeframe in Canada,” he said. “Once you realize they’re missing, call the police. During the police’s initial investigation, they’ll decided to call GSAR or not. They train with us to do that.”
He said the organization will often take spontaneous volunteers, however there is still a process that needs to be followed, including registering then and keeping track of their positions. Spontaneous volunteers also need to deploy with trained searchers, not going out on their own.
“They can destroy clues. They could get lost,” said Fitzpatrick.
In Debert, there were so many searchers in the woods, GSAR attempted to utilize the search dog three times, but it was too saturated with scent. There were so many people trying to help, said Fitzpatrick, the local fire department had to assist and block people and vehicles from entering the search area.
In both local searches, a military helicopter was called in to assist.
Because the Colchester GSAR organization’s home base is Debert, they knew the area well for that particular search, and it was one of their members to find the boy about 200 metres behind their building.
When it comes to lost person searches, Fitzpatrick said organizations now use a Lost Person’s Behaviour database, which is an evidence-base compilation of previous searches.
“Nova Scotia is the leader in Canada in lost person behaviour,” he said. “It takes cases, in these cases those of a 12-year-old, and go through their behaviour. These will be added to that base.”
He said many people, when they think of GSAR operations, will think of searchers lining up and walking into the woods together. He said, however, that can be more harmful than affective.
“We teach all of our searchers to be clue conscious. You’re not looking for a lost person. That lost person is a clue generator. If there are no clues, that’s a clue they aren’t in that area,” he said.
“Lines destroy clues and hinder other aspects, like the dogs.”
Currently, Colchester GSAR has 24 active members, all of whom are very dedicated volunteers. The two recent searches have had 17 and 18 searchers respond, respectively.
Fitzpatrick said he’d love to see a base of about 50 active volunteers with the organization, and they’re dying for radio operators at this point. Volunteers can take on a variety of roles, including drivers. All go through basic searcher training programs, and then individuals can choose to specialize after that.
They train every Tuesday at 7 p.m. at their base in Debert, and a junior searcher program is available for those aged 16 to 18.
For more information or to become a volunteer, visit colchestersar.ca.