“My husband didn’t come home from his hunting trip this weekend. Can you go look for him?” said the anxious wife into the unmonitored SAR voice mailbox.
The answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” but credible SAR units only respond at the direction of law enforcement. The anxious wife should have called 9-1-1 as soon as it became clear her husband was grossly overdue. Likewise, I have personally taken calls from distraught families who wanted my team to search for their teenage runaway. I know they felt let down when I had to tell them to call the police.
In Washington and most states, law enforcement is by law in charge of ground-based search and rescue missions. It makes sense- sometimes the most benign SAR mission can turn out to be a homicide.
Credible SAR teams affiliate with a county, and sheriff’s deputies filter missing person reports. They decide when SAR teams, and which types, should be called in to search.
Watching Facebook and other sources around the country I see what appear to be freelance SAR teams. Worse, they’re occasionally making what appear to be inflated claims about their success rate. I’ve even heard of, but not personally verified, that some try to charge families or offer contracts at the time of searching. That’s a longer topic for another post but there is opposition among most SAR teams to charging for a search. (If a family wants to offer a donation, they’ll take it. But they don’t ask at a time when a family might be emotionally vulnerable.)
If you know of someone who isn’t where they’re supposed to be, the correct next step is to call 9-1-1. The deputy or officer will call out only those resources that make sense. They probably won’t call mountain rescue for someone overdue after a whitewater rafting trip.
Likewise if you’re in the unenviable position of reporting a loved one missing, be very skeptical of a freelance team that contacts you after hearing news reports. Before signing a contract or agreeing to pay up front for services, ask the deputy handling your case why that team isn’t on the county’s roster of official responders.
And after all that, let me say with all my heart that I hope we never meet under such circumstances.
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