Outdoor Skills and Search & Rescue

Tracking for Search and Rescue


Midshires Search and Rescue (MSAR) recently undertook training in various outdoor skills courtesy of Woodland Ways (http://www.woodland-ways.co.uk/) The training posed questions on what outdoor skills in addition to basic search techniques may be of use; how often they would be of use and how do we best use them to support a search.


Tracking is clearly a very powerful tool that all searchers would benefit from having an insight into.

As discussed below, I think a knowledge of tracking makes you a better searcher. It makes you see things differently; seeing the same things as others but understanding the greater meaning of them. However, since the UK has relatively limited experience of incorporating tracking into misper searches, how do we implement this new skill – progressively, selectively, or a ‘big hit’ approach. Tracking per se is relatively easy to learn, and many of the basic principles are compatible with what we learn on basic searcher courses. However, to become a competent tracker who is safe to deploy on a live search requires commitment from both the individual and their team to support and undertake training.

There are several aspects of tracking that can be readily incorporated into current search practice and used as a basis upon which to evolve and develop this skill.

Core knowledge of a searcher or team leader includes recognising and protecting a crime scene. We are however, probably less robust at recognising and protecting track sign. The key problem is probably failure to recognise. Tracking training does undoubtedly change and improve the way a searcher views the environment in which they are searching. Most searchers would inherently be attempting to spot easy to recognise signs of a persons presence such as items of clothing, cigarette butts, tablet packets etc. However, a searcher might not identify harder to spot signs such as trampled vegetation, broken twigs and turned over stones for example. This emphasis on sign awareness helps change a searchers perception from ‘we are looking for a misper’ to ‘we are looking for a misper or physical evidence or indicators that they have been present’. Consequently, although tracking per se would require significant practice, the insight into sign recognition is well worthwhile.

Two further frequent occurrences that occur during foot searches can also be approached with in an improved manner in light of the better understanding tracking yields. The first relates to the finding of things of potential significance, such as items of clothing. On live searches, many of these are coincidental finds and one useful approach to allow them to be discounted is ‘aging’. Many searchers probably already do this subconsciously, but a formal understanding of how tracks / sign age has great potential to improve a searchers ability to rapidly assess an item and the surrounding area, allowing a find to be reliably excluded from, or included as information to control enabling a search to progress with greater speed and focus.

The second problem is having identified an area of vegetation that has been passed through, can we identify if the track was made by a human or animal and how long ago. For example, it is not uncommon when undertaking a route and path search, to find an apparent track heading away from the main route into deeper undergrowth. Searchers being unnecessarily distracted by apparent tracks that are in reality animal tracks has the potential to delay searching. The ability to rapidly distinguish human from animal tracks and to date tracks has the potential to significantly reduce wasted time. Obviously, the ultimate goal of a misper search is to locate the person, and tracking can be applied directly to this. Additionally, tracking may not directly lead a team to the misper, but allows controllers and team leaders to narrow down the search area in order to reduce the length of time a successful search takes.

Another interesting feature of tracking is the concept of ‘zoning in’ – ie, upon arrival, taking time to relax and become familiar with the immediately local environment. This has obvious advantages such as allowing a more relaxed searcher to find it easier to spot sign and the ability to notice changes in local wildlife (eg animal distress calls, or birds flocking) that may indicate a misper being in the area. However, this directly conflicts with the concept of search being urgent and the role of a hasty search. This will be something for teams who use trackers to rationalise. Also, if teams are split into trackers who take time to zone in, and searchers who deploy to undertake a hasty search, consideration of how the searchers avoid destroying track or disturbing wildlife is essential. Another potential area of conflict with traditional search techniques revolves around team composition.

There could be dedicated tracking teams, or another option for units would be to have a search team containing a single tracker who swaps between functioning as a traditional foot searcher and a tracker to advise his / her team leader. However, can a ‘zoned in’ tracker really swap between roles whilst maintaining their focus and track awareness ? Again this is heavily dependent on what a team wants from it’s trackers – pure tracker, or searcher applying certain principles of tracking at opportune moments. Equally however, some aspects of tracking directly support and enhance traditional search techniques.

The tracking concepts of looking for both aerial sign (broken twigs, fibres caught on vegetation, fences etc, turned over or bent vegetation, broken cobwebs) and ground sign (footprints, discarded items, body waste, blood spots) directly complements the concept of the searchers cube and almost certainly enhances how we perform it. It is also a useful coincidence that the ideal tracking team, comprising three persons is not dissimilar to a traditional search team.

Sign-cutting, especially using natural points of passage such as gateways to rapidly assess if a person has passed by recently could potentially speed up the search of an area, but teams using this invaluable tactic will need an internal plan for how they ensure an area is searched as completely as the POLSA and controller envisage. Perhaps sub-sectors could be created with different probabilities of detection being governed by the presence or absence of sign. This issue will be heavily influenced by the team leaders, controllers and POLSA’s confidence in the skill levels of the tracker. As and when tracking becomes more common, the problem of ensuring that UK police forces have sufficient confidence in this new skill is something that will need to be addressed.

Tracking in the purist form also highlights the information that we should attempt to gather from the police or relatives prior to a search commencing and the relevance and priority that we place upon it. The following list will be variably familiar to a traditionally trained searcher: Age, sex, height, weight, build, hair colour and length, clothing, equipment, footwear, outdoor experience, state of health, past injuries, personality traits, state of mind, hobbies and interests, right or left handed, weather conditions. These details vary by how overtly useful they are and how easy they are to obtain, but it does emphasise that any team wishing to adopt tracking needs to consider the implications for all aspects from pre-search planning and information gathering, through control and sectoring to team operations.

Conversely, we need to consider how information readily available to us or taken for granted in a traditional search scenario can be utilised by trained trackers. For example, how many controllers having assessed tables of missing person behaviour would automatically consider that information on the psychology of missing persons is of potential benefit to a tracker. This may include information such as panic syndrome; will they move up or down hill; will they be attracted to water; how will the childs age influence their behaviour; how will fear influence their tracks. Likewise, the tracker can inform controllers on the way a misper is behaving because of recognised action indicators such as change in stride length or irregular strides indicating things such as change of speed or injury.

In addition to theory and practice of tracking, we had an introduction to natural navigation by Woodland Ways (http://www.woodland-ways.co.uk/). Again, selective use of these skills has potential to aid our basic search techniques. It is possible to set off on a search within a sector, only to find ourselves deviating off track or to find ourselves temporarily ‘lost’ in our sector. Midshires were shown how the subtleties of our environment could help us to stay on track without distracting us from searching by the need to check compasses etc ?

The first obvious use, is prior to commencing a search, particular attention is paid to the location of the sun, or a significant local feature such as road that can be clearly heard throughout the search area. By consciously making reference to that feature throughout the search, the aim would be to maintain linearity of search, or to maintain overall orientation in the search sector. Use of the sun in this manner has certainly been used by Midshires on a search in an area of difficult woodland comprising thick undergrowth, disparate placing of holly trees that required frequent wandering and numerous patches and borders of rhododendron. It was surprising how effective reference to the sun was in terms of maintaining the search line, and rationalising the discussion within the team when we became ‘lost’ within our sector and needed to re-establish our position and orientation within the wood. Likewise, reference to a road facilitated localising ourselves at a cross-section of paths that were not marked on the OS map.

Accurate and detailed reading of the mapping prior to deploying into a search sector can additionally have its advantages such as alerting the searcher to changes in landscape or terrain, or key features such as pylons or power lines that would be expected to appear if the search is on track. These principles are not confined to rural environments. For example if searching in a town, or if residential dwellings are visible on the edge of an urban search area, satellite dishes will indicate the Southerly direction. Whist some of this practice may subconsciously happen in a team, formal understanding of the concept is invaluable and helps to engrain it within the psyche of the searcher.

Other aspects of natural navigation are more subtle, and have a less obvious direct influence on search strategy, but again knowledge helps to focus the searchers thinking and visual perception on their locality. For example, being aware of how moss grows on trees; how felled trees show non-centric growth or how tree growth is affected by prevailing winds. Additionally, natural navigation knowledge may aid in search or equipment planning, as awareness of significant and sudden changes in wind direction may indicate the potential for imminent changes in weather.

I personally would strongly advocate that teams explore the potential uses of tracking and associated outdoor skills. Midshires were lucky in that our trainers allowed and encouraged us to explore what aspects of these skills are useful to search and how to selectively apply and utilise them. The training also encouraged us to understand that tracking training is not a single weekend activity but requires continued commitment by the individual and their team and made us consider the implications of tracking on the whole service that we deliver.

Individuals or teams who undertake this training would be strongly advised to consider their requirements in advance and seek to be trained by trackers experienced in, or aware of the specific requirements and limitations of UK SAR.