Whether it’s on one of Florida’s many waterways or deep in the woods, our state’s best units are well-equipped for search and rescue (SAR). Here’s how they handle the call of duty when someone goes missing.
It didn’t take long for night to swallow every bit of light once the sun dropped below the treeline. That was hours ago.
The tiny beam from a weak flashlight flickers in a bass boat sitting silently in the dark water. The boat’s sole occupant is hunched over the outboard, flashlight in one hand, wrench in the other. He’s tried everything he knows to get the engine started again.
He can no longer see the trees along the river, but he can hear the occasional call of an owl, and something splashing nearby. The boat bumps against a submerged log just as the failing flashlight batteries give up the ghost.
Floating in the darkness in this narrow tributary somewhere along the St. John’s River, the boat owner isn’t exactly sure where he is. His wife is frantic, no doubt, but his cell phone is dead. He can only hope the call he made to her before the battery died offered some peace of mind and that she thought to tell authorities where he launched from.
Sometime after midnight the unmistakable sound of an airboat upriver shatters the silence. Less than five minutes later, the roar of the airboat draws closer and a light cuts through the blackness. A wave of relief washes over the man when he sees the familiar Florida Fish & Wildlife logo on the airboat’s hull.
Lt. Herbert Frerking, a 13-year veteran with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Ocala office, was the driver of the FWC airboat that night, but it wasn’t his first SAR mission.
“When it comes to woods and water SAR, most agencies call the FWC because this is where we do our everyday patrols. We’ve got vessels, trucks and four-wheelers. We spend a lot of time on the water and in the woods; that’s what we do for a living,” says Frerking. “When someone’s missing in a hunting- or boating-related incident, the family will often think of us first, but most SAR cases are 911 calls to the sheriff’s office.”
First Things First
No matter which agency is first notified, the initial step is to gather as much information as possible from the reporting party, including a detailed description of the person, what they were wearing and the time and place they were last seen.
The area dictates the method of searching. For example, the mobile field force, helicopter and K-9 units are always used in an initial search, but if the area is near water, a boat team may also be called in.
“The first search contingent usually has as many as 45 people. That number could rise to about 200 people if the search goes into additional days,” says Lt. Dennis McFatten, commander of the mobile field force with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), who has been with the department since 1994.
Law enforcement and public safety agencies work hand-in-hand.
“Depending on where the search is and the magnitude of it, there can be a number of agencies involved,” explains Capt. Lonnie Blackburn of Marion County Fire Rescue (MCFR) Special Operations. “When we’re searching, we don’t consider ourselves as separate agencies; we are one team striving for one goal, and that’s to find the missing person. That’s how we become successful in searches and provide the best results to the citizens.”
MCFR Special Operations utilizes multiple types of GPS devices, ranging from handheld to highly sophisticated models that allow the user to document and even photograph, with a time and date stamp, the areas searched.
“Say we have a child missing and we find a child’s shoe in the search. We can take a photo of it live time and send it back to our command post,” says Blackburn. “With their resources they can let us know if this evidence is valid to our current search. This technology gives us more detailed information to make decisions.”
GPS devices and software are used to enter coordinates on a map, which are then displayed on a monitor so SAR team members can see the areas covered and know if a location has been missed.
“We don’t have a unit strictly for SAR. We have a mutual aid agreement with the sheriff’s office, so if we need it, they will lend their helicopter and we may also use the DOC and their bloodhounds,” says Lt. Dan Wilson, who has been with the Ocala Police Department (OPD) for 29 years.
“We’ll occasionally have an elderly person wander away from home or from an assisted living facility,” says Wilson, who is also in charge of the SWAT team. “If someone in the city goes missing, they are usually found within a half mile of their residence.”
Takin’ It To The Skies
Getting a helicopter quickly into the air and a K-9 unit immediately on scene greatly increases the odds of finding a missing person.
“We’re a force multiplier. We have such a wide view compared to what people on the ground can see,” notes Lt. Neal Dixon, helicopter pilot and aviation unit commander for MCSO. “We can search an area the size of a football field in a matter of seconds, where it might take five or six men on the ground 30 to 35 minutes to do a thorough search.”
Depending on area and terrain, the helicopter pilot generally flies a grid pattern when searching. In the case of a person missing from home, the area around the house is searched first.
“Studies have shown most Alzheimer’s patients come out the door and turn left, so we work around the house first and then start spreading out,” says Dixon.
“My goal is strictly to support the people on the ground, whether they’re searching for a lost person or are on an in-progress call,” says Dixon, who has been with the department for 32 years.
That “eye in the sky” relies on some pretty advanced equipment, including night vision goggles and forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras, an imaging technology that uses infrared radiation.
“We’ve been using this type of FLIR cam since 1993,” says Dixon. “It works strictly off heat. The definition of these cameras is so detailed. You see a silhouette and the hotter it is the brighter green it glows.”
It takes a well-trained eye to identify exactly what’s on the screen. Even inanimate objects like trees and vehicles can hold heat and show up on the FLIR cam.
“We also have one of the most up-to-date spotlights on the market, which has seven different filters,” Dixon adds. “If we use the night vision filter, no one on the ground would know the spotlight was on unless they had on night vision goggles.”
Bring In The Dogs
Dogs are more than “man’s best friend.” They help find missing persons, evidence and recover bodies.
“We use dogs on every search. We start locally with our K-9 deputies on the initial search with dual-service dogs that are used to search for people,” says McFatten. “We also use bloodhounds from the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC), and these dogs are specially trained to search for people.”
“We do more than just work at a prison,” says Col. William Malloy of the Marion Correctional Institution (MCI) in Lowell. “We have a good working relationship with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and the Ocala Police Department. We have an agreement with all law enforcement agencies and assist them with any canine needs.”
When a SAR call comes in, MCI sends their K-9 teams to the scene, transporting the dogs in a truck equipped with dog boxes. The best option is for the dog to smell an article of clothing from the missing person. If this is not possible, the handler takes the dog to the location where the person was last seen. Dog and handler begin circling the area so the dog can pick up the person’s “scent pool” in the air and begin to follow it.
“Time is of the essence; the sooner we can get there, the stronger the scent,” says Malloy.
It usually takes at least six months to a year to properly train a bloodhound for search work. A trained bloodhound is often able to track a person even when the scent isn’t fresh. Sgt. Joshua Giselbach, DOC dog handler, recalls one SAR mission where the dog located the missing individual using a scent trail that was 72 hours old.
“The Marion County Sheriff’s Office called for our assistance about a missing suicidal individual. At the time there was a torrential downpour,” recalls DOC officer Mark Savage.
“The sheriff’s deputy gained access to the person’s vehicle, and we let the dog, K-9 Pepper, get the scent from the vehicle’s seat and started tracking from that. K-9 Pepper and his handler tracked the person three-quarters of a mile in a rainstorm. Once the storm let up, Lt. Neal Dixon had the helicopter in the air. When Lt. Dixon located the man, the K-9 handler was only about 200 yards away.” (This story has a happy ending, as the man was alive and unharmed.)
Despite what you’ve seen in movies, dogs are not running loose when tracking.
“If we’re in the woods, they have a 20-foot lead,” explains Giselbach. “If we’re in the city, we give them a 10-foot lead, but if we’re by a highway, we keep the dog as close to us as we can. When they ‘alert,’ they start wagging their tails more than usual. Their reward for finding someone is hugs, praise and a treat when they get in the box to go back home.”
In one Marion County case, a family called 911 after realizing their relative—a man in his 70s and diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease—had walked away from the house unnoticed.
“When we got the call, the man had been gone for three or four hours,” recalls McFatten. “We searched until almost 9pm that night and didn’t find him, even with the helicopter. We returned early the next morning and brought in a DOC bloodhound and handler to track the man using scent from an article of his clothing. Within 30 minutes, the dog found the man just about 50 yards from the house.”
“Our dogs are not your typical ‘police dogs’ that are known for being aggressive. We use a lot of hunting and bird dog breeds, including Labrador Retrievers and German Shorthaired Pointers. We have 18 canine units across the state and one in Marion County,” notes Frerking. “FWC dogs are specifically trained for manned tracking, article and wildlife searches.”
When Division Chief “Bart” Walker of MCFR and his SAR dog K-9 Peyton go into the field, the dog wears a GPS collar that gathers information, which can be helpful when determining where to employ resources in the search.
Mounted Search Units
Canines aren’t the only four-legged members of SAR. When the MCSO needs additional help searching in rugged or remote areas, they call up the mounted unit.
“There are a few unique factors about searching on horseback,” says Capt. Eddie Leedy, who has been commander of the mounted unit since 2007. “A horse has more stamina and can generally cover more ground than someone on foot, and your field of vision is higher because you’re 8 to 10 feet above the ground. A lot of times the horse will alert to the smell of a person or death before human searchers notice it.”
That’s exactly what happened during the search for a missing man who was considered suicidal. After finding his abandoned vehicle along a road, authorities searched the surrounding woods on foot, but found no trace of him. That’s when the mounted unit was called.
This search ended tragically when members of the mounted unit discovered the man had hung himself. The horses alerted to the scent before searchers spotted the man’s body.
Marion County’s mounted unit, which currently has 26 members, is one of the few totally self-sufficient volunteer units with the sheriff’s office. Volunteers must have horse, truck and trailer and pay their own expenses when on a search. In addition to search and rescue and search and recovery (when there’s no hope for the person to be found alive), the mounted unit also works parking duty for various functions and events.
Volunteers fill out an application, pass a background check and go through detailed training. Horses must prove to be well-behaved and responsive. There is no one breed of horse used; the mounted unit has everything from stock horses to warmbloods.
Leedy himself has three different horses, including a Thoroughbred mare who was a rescue case, a 17.3 hand Holsteiner and his “old faithful,” a 16-year-old Paint mare.
The protocol for mounted searching varies according to terrain with vegetation and the line of sight dictating the search line. For example, in an area with abundant vegetation, riders maintain less distance between themselves than in an open grassy field. In extremely thick vegetation, riders will dismount and walk to be sure they don’t miss anything.
“The members line up and proceed forward, keeping the line straight and staying within sight of each other so they know the search pattern is covered,” Leedy explains. “We use GPS locators; the riders hook it onto their saddle, and it shows the direction of travel. The locators have software that connects to a Google Earth map, and we use coordinates to ensure we’ve fully searched the area. This also lets you pinpoint exact areas where you find any evidence. Ideally, we like to have one of these GPS locators on both end riders in the line. Then we know everything between those two riders has been covered.”
Lost On The Water
Florida has an abundance of fresh and saltwater bodies, and both see their fair share of SAR.
“Our agency has a lot of vessels, and water patrol is one of our primary duties, so we’re often called on to help in water searches,” says Frerking. “It’s not unusual to have a breakdown on the water, but a lot of times people just get lost. They don’t know the area as well as they think they do, especially after dark.”
When FWC is called about a missing boater, the first step is to go to the boat ramp where the person supposedly launched from and look for their vehicle and trailer in the parking area.
If the search is on a river, FWC officers look for the person’s boat but also search for evidence in the water and along the bank that might be connected with the missing person. Searching on a lake presents a greater challenge, and if coastal waters are involved, the task is even more daunting.
“Anytime we have a maritime situation—either the Gulf or the Atlantic—we involve the Coast Guard,” says Frerking. “They have a lot of SAR capabilities with both vessels and aircraft.”
Sadly, some cases remain unsolved, despite extensive SAR efforts. On February 25, John R. Radabaugh Jr., a 48-year-old man with the mental capacity of a toddler, walked out of his family’s backyard in Ocklawaha. Despite many days of searching by multiple SAR units, Radabaugh has not been located.
“It’s always a hard decision to call off a search because the family always holds out hope,” says McFatten. He explains that this is done based on the missing individual’s condition and specific situation, weather conditions, along with research and studies that show how long a person could expect to survive.
“Miracles happen all the time,” adds McFatten, “but there comes a time when we have to pull back the resources, and at that point, we’re trying to bring closure to the family.”