photo of four people in law enforcement uniforms next to a pick up truck along a grassy wooded path
A canine team searches as mutual aid partners from multiple agencies prepare for a grid search. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

We generally think of rural areas as safe, healthy places to grow up, raise families, and grow old. But the heartbreaking reality is that even in our communities, people go missing. We pray for the return of those abducted by a stranger, acquaintance or family member, for runaway and thrownaway youth, for missing and murdered indigenous people. But we really want to do more to help, especially when the missing person is likely simply lost, possibly injured, maybe confused.

Those are the situations I want to address. They happen more often than you might think. Even good parents have Houdini toddlers who can disappear the moment they look away. Even good caregivers have confused elders who find hidden car keys, or cognitively impaired adults who get turned around and keep going. Even good families make mistakes. 

What generally happens then is a frantic person starts looking, then calling family, friends and neighbors, and eventually calling 911. The responding law enforcement officer probably makes an initial assessment about whether there are possible indications of abuse, domestic violence, stranger danger or other red flag warnings. When those concerns don’t seem to apply, the responding officer may begin a hasty search and call in additional personnel to check probable locations. I suspect those searches happen more often than most of us know, and happily most are quickly resolved. 

But when that missing person isn’t located in a short time, law enforcement may call in additional resources. In my area, that would be the volunteer fire department. 

I first joined my fire department in 1990 as a search and rescue volunteer. Outdoor recreation is vital to the local economy here so we get a fair amount of practice finding overdue, lost and injured hunters, anglers, snowmobilers, ATVers, rafters, tubers, canoeists, kayakers, horseback riders, mountain bikers, and motorists who program their GPS to “shortest route”. We have also been called out on searches for missing toddlers, older children, and adults with cognitive challenges. Some of those people went missing from unfamiliar places like campgrounds or concert venues. A couple wandered away from their own yards. Here are some things those incidents have taught us.

Information. From the moment we’re paged out we start collecting information. That includes things like the Point Last Seen (PLS) and Last Known Point (LKP) – for example, where the Missing Person (MP) left a vehicle. Dispatch will relay what they have about the MP’s age, physical condition, recent activity, plans, and specific concerns reported by the person who called 911. From that information and data points added from interviews and observations, we start to determine probabilities and plan where and how to search. While that sounds pretty straightforward, the information we get is often incomplete or wrong: Prior to someone going missing others generally are not paying attention as if that’s about to happen. When interviews pose questions already asked and answered multiple times it’s not meant to “trip up” a respondent – it’s to ferret out helpful details that give searchers a clearer picture of the situation.

The Bike Wheel Model. A search Incident Command team (IC) begins to organize information into a mental picture that resembles a bicycle wheel. At the center (the axle) is the Initial Planning Point (IPP). The hub is the area immediately surrounding the IPP. The spokes represent likely routes of travel away from the IPP. Reflectors represent high probability areas. And the wheel’s rim represents a theoretical containment area beyond which it is unlikely the MP would be able to travel. Containment is an important goal. We want to focus resources where the MP is most likely to be found so we must try to keep a mobile MP from moving outside that area.

Search Types. IC may employ several basic types of searches. 

  • In a passive search, stationary teams are deployed to choke points and likely places where a moving subject might pass, or to reinforce that theoretical containment area (the bicycle wheel rim). It may not feel like an assignment with a high potential for glory, but in our experience this tactic can be very successful and may be among the first assignments.
  • In an active search teams are deployed in specific areas or along specific routes to look for the subject and/or clues to their presence or absence. Hasty searches of the IPP, the hub around it and other high probability areas may be repeated. You’d be surprised how often someone is found where searchers have already looked.
  • Wingnut searches are what we call things that sound crazy but experience tells us are effective enough to warrant the allocation of resources. Seriously, we can have people searching a huge area of woods or along miles of river and the MPs are found on a bar stool eating a pizza, unaware that their family called 911 when they were many hours overdue. So, yes, we check the taverns.
  • A grid or line search is a slow, methodical and thorough sweep of an area. These can be physically demanding and even more mentally challenging, and generally require a lot of additional manpower. For us, that may mean calling on mutual aid partners from other rural volunteer fire departments, conservation wardens, and other personnel from the Department of Natural Resources. 

Accountability. One advantage to using volunteer firefighters is that they’re used to working in teams and with accountability protocols The Incident Command team tracks who is on scene, who’s assigned to what tasks, and their progress on those assignments. Those records help ensure we don’t lose track of a searcher should one break a leg or suffer a heat emergency or heart attack. They also provide a snapshot of what’s been done to review when considering what to do next. And to be blunt, they may be used to document who might have had access to an area later determined to be a crime scene. Accountability records are the best insurance we have when there’s no time to do background checks on unknown volunteers. 

Before Arrival. It doesn’t help to have searchers show up in flip flops and shorts when you’re going to send them on a grid search through brambles and swamp. It’s better to take a few minutes to gather what you need and arrive prepared for a variety of conditions.

On Arrival. Upon arriving at IC or a separate staging area, people check in and give information about special skills or equipment they have (for example, knowledge of terrain, features and potential hazards, drones, thermal imaging cameras, etc.). Then we ask them to stay in the area designated for people awaiting assignments.

Controlled Chaos. Especially early in a search event while information is still being gathered and assessed, it may look like no one is doing much. Trust me – the Incident Command team would like things to move faster, too. But it doesn’t help to put all your resources in the field before you have enough information to form reasonable probabilities. Updates to waiting volunteers may not be communicated as often as we all would prefer. That doesn’t mean things aren’t happening.

Freelancing. When people think things aren’t happening fast enough they may be tempted to freelance, bypassing accountability and assignments and going off on their own (to just “check something out”). They may mean well, but in doing so can contaminate scent or sign in a high probability area the IC intends to have searched by an incoming dog team or with a grid search at first light. And leaving a fixed position assignment to freelance can leave a gap in the containment strategy. Freelancers spotted by drones can draw bona fide members of a search team in the wrong direction, diluting the effort available to cover higher probability areas. A couple of times we’ve had freelancers who heard traffic on the scanner and thought they would help. I’m sure it was sincere but it’s hard to not wonder what kind of evil plot twist a crime show would make of freelance searchers in a remote rural area where a child or young woman is missing.

Keeping It Quiet. Another benefit of using volunteer firefighters in a search is that most have portable radios. It’s challenging to manage a big search without radio communications – imperfect as those might be in a rural area. We certainly would prefer to not have radio communications about a search broadcast on open local government channels. Unfortunately, our incidents often cover areas greater than the range of our radios’ tactical point-to-point channels.

Rumors & Social Media. Surprisingly, there are times when someone at a search can get enough cell signal to post to social media. And that’s a problem. Volunteer fire departments have social media and privacy policies. Other search volunteers, though, may not realize the impact of posting an online prayer request or video until it has been shared hundreds of times. Those posts can attract would-be volunteers who may not be prepared to provide real help (flip flops and brambles). Having them show up on a scene before a search can actually use them diverts other personnel from time-sensitive tasks to crowd control. In the press of time, search briefings may fail to include specific instructions to not share information, images or video. But don’t. Eventually, the sheriff’s department or another official source will make a statement you can share. People who pump others for gossip – in person or by phone or text – deserve a gentle reminder that the family shouldn’t have to read or hear things spread that way. If, God forbid, you are part of the family/friends/neighbors group called before 911, make a specific request to everyone you speak with to not share information or post to social media unless and until that is OKd by both the family and law enforcement.

Lost Person Behavior. Every search is unique but there are factors – including age and mental state of the MP, environment and activity – that can help searchers anticipate certain behaviors. We refer to an app based on a book by Robert J. Koester to suggest interview questions, “reflex tasks” (high probability areas to search early on), and distances traveled in similar incidents (for estimating the area to cover with containment – it’s  surprising how far that can be). The subject profiles introduce characteristics that may seem far-fetched until you’ve experienced them. One example is the hunter who doesn’t perceive himself as lost. We’ve been on two searches where a hunter eventually met searchers on a road and asked who they were looking for. Particularly helpful are sections on subject characteristics by age group in children and mental state (such as autism, dementia, despondency, intellectual disability, mental illness and substance intoxication). We want to know sooner rather than later that children with autism may gravitate toward bodies of water or that for someone with dementia we may want to search places where the MP used to live or work.

There’s something to learn from every search. Bikini Mom reminded us all that if you’re taking your kid’s friend on an outdoor activity where you may get separated, you should know the friend’s last name, address, and phone numbers for the parents. Tree Stand (hanging upside down by the toes) taught us to never assume firearms are unloaded. 

Moonlight Stroll taught me to not go alone down a dead-end road to start interviewing the person who called 911. The deputy on that scene suspected it could be a domestic violence situation. He didn’t think it likely a group of young adults camping at an unimproved site on Forest Service lands might decide to hike to an opening in the tree canopy for a better view of the night sky. That didn’t seem strange to me, nor did the admission that the group had enjoyed a few beers around the campfire. When the MP found her way back to her party a short while later my suspicions were confirmed: She had to pee and no one saw her step off the trail, where she got turned around as the rest of the group went on without her. Nothing sinister – but I am more cautious now.

But the greatest lesson we have learned is this: Don’t wait until just before dark to call  911. 


Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin, where she is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department.

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