Meet the highly trained volunteers who make up the Cheshire Search and Rescue Team
PUBLISHED: 09:31 16 January 2013 | UPDATED: 22:38 20 February 2013
Highly trained volunteers make up Cheshire Search and Rescue Team. They rescue people in both dramatic and mundane situations. Words by Paul Mackenzie Photography by Kirsty Thompson
A young man is missing. It is a cold, dark winter night and search teams are scouring the streets of Warrington looking for him. As the hunt continues they get word that the man has a medical condition which could be serious if he is not found soon. The pressure mounts and tension tightens as the search team intensify their efforts. The sweeping torchlight picks out their distinctive red and black coats as they move methodically from street to street, building to building and room to room.
This time it is an exercise: the missing man was a member of the Cheshire Search and Rescue Team. But the dedication of his colleagues during the search was exactly as it would be on a real call-out. In the briefing room before the exercise began, the air was filled with laughter and friendly chatter. But once the scenario was explained the atmosphere was one of quiet resolve.
The team was formed nine years ago to help in the search for murdered Warrington teenager Shafilea Ahmed and has since helped in several other high profile cases, including the recent hunt for the missing Welsh schoolgirl April Jones.
But not every call-out is as headline-grabbing. The majority of the incidents the team attend are to assist the police in tracing vulnerable people either young people intent on potentially fatal self harm, or confused elderly people.
And while the search team are highly trained, they are all volunteers. Ordinary people from all walks of life doing extraordinary things to help their community. One is a heating engineer, another a bomb disposal expert, another works for Asda and relative newcomer Mark Susca is a pilot who flies holidaymakers to the Spanish resorts.
Mark, who joined last August, said: I filled the forms in for a support role originally but everyone said come and join us. I wasnt sure at first but I went to some training nights, did the medical courses and I havent regretted it for a moment.
This is my county and my community and Ive had so much given to me. It is nice to put something back rather than just sitting at home every night. My job is rewarding, but this is something that really makes a difference.
It can be emotionally draining but it is so rewarding and its such a great team. We are all very close and there is real care and support. After my first search I was sent a text message checking I was OK and its that sort of thing that gels the family feel of the group.
Jo McClure was among the first members of the group. She is now the team leader and is responsible for liaising with the police when a search is to be launched. She then sends text messages to the team and arranges a rendezvous with all the members who are available to help.
She said: The call can come at any time and it does ask a lot of people. The year before last we had a call-out at 8.30 on Christmas morning, but the fact they were willing to join the search shows the dedication and commitment of the team.
There are now over 50 members and more than half of their number was there on the night of my visit at their weekly training session, which on this occasion saw them searching the roads and buildings around the former police training centre at Warrington.
And there are plans to double the membership in the next five years. Jos anaesthetist husband Dave, who is also a member of the executive team, said: We would like to increase the number of volunteers and to have more bases around the county. At the moment we are based in Warrington but if we can develop bases in Wilmslow, Macclesfield, Crewe, Chester and Northwich we will be able to improve our response times.
We also want to train our members in flood rescue. We work well with the police and the fire service but we know the emergency services are in financial crisis, and because we have seen more and more floods in recent years it would be great if we could raise the money for equipment and have our members fully trained in flood rescue to help keep the public safe.
As with any volunteer organisation, many of the pressures faced by the search and rescue team relate to funding. The team receives no financial support and must raise all the money it needs for equipment and training. Members give talks, attend local events, hold bag-packing days in supermarkets and rely heavily on donations and gifts from businesses in the area.
To fully train and equip the team for flood rescue would cost more than 40,000 and chief fundraiser Mark Simpson said: We need about 100 a day just to stand still. We do get a good response from the public, especially after we are involved in a high profile search, but we still have a wish list of things we would like everything from vehicles to torches.
Mark joined the team just over a year ago and added: Within two weeks I had 52 new friends. It gets you hooked, it really is infectious. The terrible outcomes do affect you but the good outcomes are the payback, the times when you can see that you have made a real difference to a family. Even when the outcome is a sad one, to know that you have done all you could for that person can give you a real feeling of pride in yourself and the team.
For more information about Cheshire Lowland Search and Rescue Team, or to donate money or equipment, log on to www.cheshire-sarteam.org, where you can also register your interest in volunteering.