The search is on

Dorney Lake is famous for its London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic credentials, last week its waterways and marshland played host to the Association of Lowland Search and Rescue (ALSAR) and O2 for a Search and Rescue demonstration on a magnificent scale.

Our day started with a simulated text alert: ‘RVP at Dorney Lake at 9.30am for a high risk missing person rescue call out’. Clearly this wasn’t going to be just another day in the office.

The rendezvous point was visible from all the way across the lake.  ALSAR had kindly brought a wide range of their resources along, 4x4s, control vans, boats and bikes, foot teams and I counted 12 search & rescue dogs all excited and itching to get to work.

ALSAR are a national voluntary organisation with 1500 volunteers who search for high risk missing persons.  They’re very similar to Mountain Rescue, with one big difference.  Mountain Rescue tend to look for people who want to be found. ALSAR volunteers look for people who don’t.  They search for high risk missing people, and by high risk I mean in imminent danger of death, possibly suicidal or suffering from dementia.  A challenging prospect for any budding volunteers to consider.  Paul Westwell is the Chairman of ALSAR’s Search Dogs Buckinghamshire, as well as a qualified dog handler with his search dog Jasper (and trainee Search Dog Ozzy).  By day, Paul works in the O2 Networks team, but in his spare time Paul is an operational Lowland Rescue Search dog handler working directly with the Police and other Emergency Services.

Following a welcome from Ben Dowd, O2’s Business Director, we split into teams and attended our safety briefings.  We were told we were searching for a diabetic, 6ft white male, last seen wearing dark clothes, who was feeling despondent.  Clutching our maps, our search was on.

Each ALSAR volunteer team shared what they do to find the ‘Misper’ as quickly and safely as possible using their technology and experience.  For me, seeing the technology in use out in the woods and listening to the volunteers share their insight and stories was an absolute privilege.  Technology plays an important but supporting role, it’s the volunteers who make the real difference.  The tech is also much more diverse than I think any of the O2 team expected, it’s not just electronics and mobiles but safety gear, bikes, clothing, stretchers.  It’s all essential, high-tech kit that needs to be paid for by donations.  Recognition of the volunteer Emergency Services support teams is low and despite it only costing approximately £20,000 a year to keep an organisation like this alive, it’s a continuous struggle. Their expertise is in saving lives, not necessarily in marketing and PR.

With that in mind, after the volunteer Misper was located and stretchered back to base for a well-earned cup of tea and sausage sandwich, it was back to O2 Head Quarters for a Social Media workshop.  The O2 Communications & Reputation Social Media team has offered to share their expertise around raising awareness via brands such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.  Everyone has a different level of understanding when it comes to Social Media and the ALSAR volunteers were no different.  For ALSAR, their Social Media efforts are complex at best, because they have separate Twitter and Facebook accounts for each local team.  As you can probably imagine, that makes life difficult when trying to promote the organisation in a consistent way.  We’ll be working with ALSAR to help them perfect their social media approach, with profile building and fund raising being top of the priorities list.  Watch this space for more details.

I feel lucky to have met some amazing people who volunteer their time to save lives.  Their commitment and dedication is second to none.  On behalf of O2, I would like to thank each and every individual (the two-legged and the four-legged) for giving us a little bit of their very precious time.  We loved every minute.

O2 is proud to support ALSAR with their essential technology needs. With ALSAR, opening up the possibilities of technology isn’t just important; it really can make the difference between life and death.