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How London's new volunteer search and rescue team are giving support on the Heath

PUBLISHED: 17:13 29 November 2019 | UPDATED: 17:13 29 November 2019

London Search and Rescue's team on Hampstead Heath during a training exercise on Sunday November 24. Picture: Josh Thurston

London Search and Rescue's team on Hampstead Heath during a training exercise on Sunday November 24. Picture: Josh Thurston

© Joshua Thurston - All Rights Reserved

Dusk begins to set in on Hampstead Heath.

A London Search and Rescue team investigate brambles and brush on Hampstead Heath during a missing person training exercise. Picture: Josh ThurstonA London Search and Rescue team investigate brambles and brush on Hampstead Heath during a missing person training exercise. Picture: Josh Thurston

A dozen people gather at the top of the hill near Springett's Wood late on Sunday afternoon and slowly make their way down through the brambles, fallen trees and brush looking for a missing 33-year-old woman. Buddy the search dog, an English Springer Spaniel scurries down the bank, wriggling his nose to sense where she is.

A shout goes up. "Code Orange! Code Red!". They've found her.

While this was a training exercise, it's a dramatic take on reality for London Search and Rescue, which was set up two years ago.

They respond to missing persons investigations in non-urban parts of London, as well as helping out in the home counties as well as Surrey and Kent.

The 50-strong search group make notes on The 50-strong search group make notes on "Alex" who had gone missing on the Heath, with fears for her safety. Picture: Josh Thurston

The voluntary organisation was set up two years ago and has joined a network of 36 around the country. That morning provided a very stark example of why the service is needed. As deputy director and former army medic Ryan Farber arrived that morning to open the gates and set up, the Heath's Constabulary and the London Ambulance Service had recently discovered a 48-year-old woman hanged near the East Heath Road car park.

The group of 50 search technicians, team leaders, as well as operations role had attracted people from a variety of backgrounds. A number of the voluntary group's members are from a military background, or served in the emergency services.

However, there are a few exceptions to break the rule. Team leader Louise Frith, who was involved with Kent's Lowland Search and Rescue before the London group was started, is a shorthand writer at the Royal Courts of Justice. Meanwhile actor Kate Lamb, who starred in Call the Midwife, was hoping to qualify as a search technician during the final exercise.

Ms Frith said: "I saw my local lowland rescue team being involved in trying to find a missing person, who it turned out had been murdered. I was working as a secretary at the time and just wanted to get involved. I'm doing something useful for the community.

London Search and Rescue evacuate London Search and Rescue evacuate "Alex" during the training exercise. Picture: Josh Thurston

"You always hope to find people who are still alive, but you can always give the families the closure they need if it's not a good outcome. That's important too."

The organisation searches for vulnerable people, including those who are thought to be at risk of suicide or people with dementia who have gone "wandering." The group was involved with the search at Highgate Men's Pond earlier this year when Christopher Slamon went missing while swimming. An inquest last month found he had died of drowning, with a heart attack, coronary heart disease and high blood pressure as contributing factors

The team is now working closely with the Met who will call in its expertise with a missing person if needed. It has been called out 19 times this year.

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The text message for search technicians to "stand-by" can arrive in the middle of the night.

As team members were being put through their paces on first aid in the bandstand, she told this newspaper that there can be an "adrenaline rush" when the message comes through, as she gets changed and grabs her bag, complete with Haribo and Mars bars to keep her going on the sometimes cold and long searches in wooded areas like the Heath or the more rural counties outside London.

As one of the more experienced members of the London Search and Rescue team, Louise knows all too well that there isn't always a happy ending on finds.

"It is upsetting," she said. "It is something you have to accept as part of the job as something that will take place, but there is support available for us. You will get calls afterwards to talk through how you are if you find somebody who has died.

"It's not about how tough you are. It is difficult. But you can take comfort from that even if you have got there too late, for the family you have helped give closure on their loved one."

The service costs £10,000 a year to run and is volunteer-led and run. While an exercise takes place simulating throwing a rope to a casualty in a lake or river, search manager Steve McGowan shows the Ham&High the operations vehicle. His old Volvo.

Fitted out with a radio antenna, printer and internet access for its search and rescue programme MapX Sarman. It gives searchers a radius and probability of where most missing people will be found, and means where search teams have looked already can be plotted on a map. It can also send text messages to a missing person's phone which will ping back a location.

The group is hoping to raise £100,000 for a fully-kitted out Ford Transit which would be a "huge asset" says Steve.

After a quick lunch, the afternoon sees the main scenario - a full search and rescue effort. They are told that "Alex" has had an argument with her boyfriend at the Spaniards Inn the night before and has been reported missing with concerns that she is vulnerable. The 50-strong search group hears some background information about her that could assist the search.

The teams split off to search the 790 acres of the Heath. After one group's brief diversion to deal with an abandoned buggy owned by hit-TV actor Rob Delaney, they begin searching near the Duelling Ground. The group of five walk slowly through the brambles, patiently combing the area, its trees and the undergrowth to see if there's any clues as to what has happened to the missing woman.

Then Kate, who is leading a search team, gets a call to her radio saying that they believe the woman has been spotted in the Springett's Wood area of the Heath. The group walk over before gathering to probe the area. "Alex," played by an actor is found injured.

The team check her vital signs, before getting her onto the ground and eventually on a stretcher to take her away, weaving around tree branches and stumps as darkness descends, as the team would to an ambulance. Steve recounts a real-life four-kilometre walk to an "extraction" point. The members being put through their paces only have to get the stretcher to the top of the hill. The London group has 108 volunteers but is looking for more people to come forward to volunteer both as searchers and on operations. As it is funded by donations, the team is looking for a volunteer fundraising manager too.

Steve said: "There's a role for everyone, you don't need a particular background or skillset because you get plenty of training. Even if you can't be physically active, there's something you can do as well."

If you would like to get involved, email Ryan at: ryan.farber@londonsar.com

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