In 1999, Massachusetts began to augment the strong search and rescue response component of the Massachusetts State Police through the controlled integration of civilian resources.
A Plan for Civilian Search and Rescue
On July 11, 1999, Melissa Gosule was reported missing in southern Massachusetts. A search by law enforcement personnel from numerous local and state agencies ensued. As days went by the search effort grew to include hundreds of civilian volunteers. These civilians would go on to play a large role in the discovery of Melissa's body ten days after the initial missing report.
The search for Melissa Gosule was but one of more than 146 searches for missing persons performed by the Massachusetts Department of State Police in 1999. This number does not take into account the many searches performed by local police departments. Increasingly, public safety officials are now joined in these search and rescue operations by civilian volunteers. These volunteers are ordinary people willing to sacrifice their time and put forth efforts to help find a missing loved one, neighbor, or even a total stranger.
In every instance when a person is missing, time is of the essence. It is critical that all available resources be brought to bear in the attempt to locate the missing individual and assistance from volunteers can be instrumental in a search. However, the presence of civilian volunteers presents a unique challenge to law enforcement because untrained, uncoordinated civilians can potentially jeopardize a search.
Although the Commonwealth, through the Massachusetts State Police, has a strong search and rescue response component in place, the Plan will augment this capability through the controlled integration of civilian resources.
Specifically, the Secretary of Public Safety, whose office oversees all public safety matters for the Commonwealth, formalized operational and administrative procedures for civilian volunteers and resources for search and rescue activities within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the Plan.
After consulting with personnel from affected public safety agencies and staff from the Department of State Police and the MA Executive Office of Public Safety, the Secretary of Public Safety released the Plan for Civilian Search and Rescue in January of 2000.
This Plan creates a direct link between civilians eager to help and the Massachusetts State Police, who are involved in most major missing person searches.
Summary and Key Points
Recognizing that the vast majority of missing person incidents are initially reported to law enforcement, the Plan maintains that law enforcement should be the lead discipline in missing person search management. Further, overall command of a missing person search shall remain with the local law enforcement agency.
Upon request by a local police department, the Massachusetts State Police will respond and will activate all necessary available resources. These resources include civilian search and rescuers, culled from a newly created Civilian Resource List.
Civilian Resource List
The Massachusetts State Police will be tasked with maintaining a comprehensive Civilian Resource List, a statewide database of all available civilian search and rescue resources, including organized groups and individuals who have been certified to assist in operations by the State Police.
The State Police shall publish a list of acceptable courses through which individuals may be certified in search and rescue techniques so that they may become eligible for inclusion on this list.
In order to best ensure the fitness and integrity of the civilians who respond to a missing person scene, all civilians who wish to be placed on this list will also be required to submit to background checks on a yearly basis; submit proof, on an annual basis, of a physical examination; and agree to abide by all rules and regulations concerning their conduct during the course of the operation.
This list is to be generated on a statewide and regional basis. Once completed, regional lists will be maintained at regional State Police barracks.
Untrained Civilian Searchers
The Plan also has protocols for dealing with untrained searchers. These are the civilians, usually family members and neighbors, who have no specific training. The majority of these volunteers are highly motivated. However, it is this type of searcher that can pose a risk to themselves, the missing individual and to the integrity of the search as a whole. Accordingly, this searcher must be managed in a specific manner as set forth by the Plan's protocols.
Management of Civilian Resources
Under the Plan, the State Police identifies two staff members who will specifically oversee the administration and coordination of the civilian search and rescue program.
A sworn member of the State Police will oversee the compilation and distribution of the civilian resource lists, as well as be present at all search and rescue operations in which the State Police participate. This position will be known as the Civilian Search and Rescue Coordinator.
A civilian position will update and publicize the civilian resources list and coordinate outreach efforts to encourage citizens to participate in the program. This position will be known as the Civilian Search and Rescue Administrator.
The Plan also seeks to address the issue of liability incurred by civilian searchers acting on behalf of the Commonwealth. Legislation currently before the State Legislature would provide a measure of protection for civilians who participate in a missing person search. This is a vital step in ensuring that well-meaning civilians are not discouraged from participating in a search for a missing person, simply on the basis of a fear of incurring any potential liability.
Once enacted, the Plan for Civilian Search and Rescue will ensure that the search for missing persons in the Commonwealth will continue to be a coordinated, efficient, and, most importantly, timely operation. This Plan provides a mechanism that will ensure that all law enforcement, trained civilians, and untrained civilians, can work together in searches. It is the belief of the Executive Office of Public Safety that this Plan will save lives in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.