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Kent Search and Rescue developing app to help find missing people

"Suicides like to go somewhere nice, somewhere that's special to them" says Stewart Baird, search manager at Kent Search and Rescue.

"Or a viewing point, somewhere that's renowned for being nice."

Every second counts in the race to find a vulnerable person, yet too often search planning relies purely on the knowledge of those involved.

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In the wake of the search for Pat Lamb Kent Search and Rescue saw a record number of people wishing to volunteer
In the wake of the search for Pat Lamb Kent Search and Rescue saw a record number of people wishing to volunteer

And in a county as big as Kent, where do you start looking? The last place they were seen? A favourite haunt maybe?

This is the stark choice facing members of Kent Search and Rescue (KSAR) and police, and it's a choice that can mean the difference between life and death.

Fortunately, KSAR's experienced search teams rely on more than guesswork.

Through observing and recording the behaviour of missing people, rescuers have noticed patterns in how they act, and where they are found.

Video: KSAR develop new app - Jem Collins reports

"The police typically pursue people, that's what they'll do, so they'll start from where the person was last seen and work from there" says Stewart.

"But autistic children are drawn towards water. So if there's a pond over there, that's one of the first places we'll go to look.

"And if it's a dementia patient, who tend typically to be older, they tend to head downhill.

"So we'll say 'don't start from the top of the hill, start from the bottom and work your way back, and you've got a far better chance of intercepting them'."

The search and rescue team beside the River Medway
The search and rescue team beside the River Medway

Soon this lifesaving knowledge could be at the fingertips of every police officer and search team member in the UK thanks to an app called K-Stat.

"They can check the app, see the missing person is an autistic child, for example, and quickly get to the nearest pond," said Stewart.

"The average 999 response officer will not have that info but the vision for K-Stat is simply to be able to give police or a search manager this app, and they can look at the information and see this type of person has been found here, here and here."

Lowland search and rescue teams from across the UK are recording details of each missing person and sending them to KSAR, and as more data is added, the accuracy improves.

Bike teams helped with a search. Picture by Martin Apps.
Bike teams helped with a search. Picture by Martin Apps.

Stewart said: "We were the busiest of every county in the UK so it makes sense for us to start because we've got the scale and the volume

"The bigger the numbers, the more accurate it gets. It's better than being totally random."

Although it will take time to build up enough data to make the app truly functional, a huge exercise is currently underway to add statistics from the police's Compac system, which will provide a big boost in accuracy.

The system currently exists only as a desktop version, so the next step will be develop an app that could be downloaded to provide on-the-spot information.


Who are Kent Search and Rescue?

Run entirely by volunteers, KSAR members are called in by police to provide the people, equipment and expertise to find a missing person.

Offering everything from dog teams to kayakers, the roles in the organisation are as diverse as the people who fill them.

By day, Stewart Baird runs a private equity fund in the city, but when KSAR is called out on a search, he is scouring woods and fields with a dog.

Search and rescue team in Greenhithe
Search and rescue team in Greenhithe

He said: "You name it, we've got it. We've got police officers, paramedics, teachers. Senior managers at big firms. Loads of people are retired."

And not everyone is expected to tramp the woods and fields, let alone paddle down a freezing river.

"If someone doesn't like the look of water or dogs, then they can do something else. You have to do something you're comfortable with otherwise there's no point in doing it" - Ed Franklin

"You do what you're comfortable with" says Ed Franklin, who owns a pet transport company.

"If someone doesn't like the look of water or dogs, then they can do something else. You have to do something you're comfortable with otherwise there's no point in doing it."

Stewart talks enthusiastically about how the organisation compliments the emergency services.

"In Kent it's become quite integrated with the police. It's a symbiotic relationship which works well for both of us.

"For example, police search dogs are great, but are you going to unleash and eight stone Alsatian in the woods, looking for a ten year old kid?

"Our dogs are all passive and will go out and find the kid in a flash, with no interaction."

KSAR volunteers are trained in a variety of skills by the police and other emergency services.

"You are giving people a massive skill set," says Stewart.

"Could you be a search manager? Could we teach you statistics and communications and how to coordinate a search?"

Ed said: "You put your toe in the door and think 'oh, this sounds interesting' and before you know it you're deeply involved without realising."

Stewart, searching with his dog. Picture: Matthew Walker
Stewart, searching with his dog. Picture: Matthew Walker

High profile searches see an increase in volunteers for KSAR, with several people who took part in the search for Pat Lamb opting to join.

Stewart said: "There was a massive spike after Pat Lamb. Three years ago we had 30 or 40 people but you get 25% who come out on a callout.

"In three years we've gone from 6 to 10 people on the ground to getting 73 to 130 members out at once. Every time we get a bit of publicity there's a spike in membership."

Despite the rise in members, KSAR is still on the lookout for new recruits, as well as money to keep the organisation going.

The service has an annual operating cost of about £18,000, but for large, expensive necessities such as boats and four wheel drives, it relies on donations.

Currently these often take the form of hand-me-downs from other emergency services, but the KSAR has its eye on a brand-new, reliable vehicle.

You can donate to KSAR via its website, which also has information for those interested in joining.


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