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The life-saving - often 'harrowing' - work of search and rescue volunteers

By Mark Andrews | Bridgnorth | In-depth | Published:

Stuart Tyrer is chatting to customers about curtain designs. People filter in and out of his curtain stall, feeling the texture of the different fabrics.

The group's new search-and-rescue dogs: Operations officer Alex Bodza, from Church Stretton, with Poppy, and team leader Richard Rollinson from Bridgnorth with Ted

Then, with a buzz of his mobile phone, Stuart is called to abandon his market stall and carry out his life-saving work.

Stuart is a member of West Mercia Search and Rescue, a group of about 60 volunteers who spend their spare time assisting the police and fire services searching for vulnerable missing people.

Somebody goes missing in the UK every 90 seconds on average. In West Mercia alone, 14 people are reported missing every day. Children are particularly susceptible: while one in every 500 adults will be reported missing at some time in their lives, the figure rises to one in 200 for youngsters.

The group, which has a head office in Tipton, has grown over the years.

In 2016 it took on a base in Shifnal, but a couple of years later it moved into its present station at Stanmore, Bridgnorth, which is equipped with boats, and off-road pick-up and quad vehicles.

Since then, it has also taken on a satellite base in Worcestershire. While it primarily serves the West Mercia Police area, its volunteers are regularly called upon to help out in incidents all over the UK.

High-profile cases include the disappearance of five-year-old April Jones, who vanished in 2012. Volunteers from the service combed the area around her home in Machynlleth searching for clues. Sadly, it later emerged that April had been murdered by Mark Bridger.

There was a happier ending, though, when Alzheimer's sufferer Ted Hemmings went missing from his Alcester care home in 2014. The search and rescue team was called into action to help find him, and he was found safe and well in a field nearby.

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Stuart Tyrer and Dave Brown lead the way as the volunteers from West Mercia Search and Rescue carry out their training exercises on the Long Mynd at Church Stretton

Stuart admits that the work can be difficult at times, particularly when dealing with children.

"It can be quite emotional, but you have got to try to keep it professional and do the job to the best of your ability," he says.

But as well as searching for missing people, a key part of the group's work also sees them being deployed in disaster areas, such as those hit by flooding.

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Stuart, who lives in the Leegomery area of Telford, is a trained water-rescue technician, and he is one of the people you will see manning the boats which rescue people from flood-stricken areas.

One of the most high-profile areas of the team's work in recent years has been searching for people who have fallen into rivers and canals.

Kirsty Walsh became an ambassador for the charity in 2018 after it recovered the body of her husband Shane from the River Severn. Shane, who was 29, went missing after a night out in Shrewsbury in September 2017, and was found following a three-day search by the volunteers.

Stuart Tyrer from West Mercia Search and Rescue

Mrs Walsh, who now works with the charity in highlighting the dangers of the water, is full of praise for the professionalism of the volunteers.

“They retrieved his body from the River Severn in a dignified and respectful manner," Mrs Walsh said after the tragedy.

"Without them I would not have been able to say goodbye to my husband. They don’t talk about what they do, so don’t get the recognition they deserve.”

Stuart says that often, the volunteers will know the chances of find the person they are looking for alive can be slim. But regardless, they will do their utmost to find them.

"If somebody has gone in the river, after a period of time you know they are going to be deceased," he says.

"Some of them can be quite harrowing, but at the end of the day you are getting that person back to their family."

The group was formed in 2007, when it was known as West Midlands Search and Rescue, and Stuart, who was already a volunteer with Cave Rescue, joined in 2012.

West Mercia Search and Rescue on a training exercise on the Long Mynd at Church Stretton). Stuart Tyrer and Dave Brown are pictured at the front of the stretcher

"I have been a diver for more than 30 years, and before I joined I was already a volunteer with cave rescue," he says.

He is one of 25 qualified divers in the team, and says the volunteers are drawn from all walks of life, although there is a large contingent from the armed forces.

"We have solicitors, people who own nut-and-bolt factories, people with their own businesses, but I would say 35-40 per cent are either ex military or currently serving," says Stuart.

The average time somebody is missing is 47 hours, but Stuart says the searches can often go on for up to a week.

Last autumn, the group received 10 major call-outs in 14 days, but at other times the group can go weeks without a call.

"The only regular part of it is the training," he says.

And there is a lot of training. On Sunday, the group's new search dogs Poppy and Ted were honing their skills out on the Cannock Chase, with National Search and Rescue Dogs Association Staffordshire, while the kayak rescue team were in training on the river at Bridgnorth.

Stuart Tyrer from West Mercia Search and Rescue

Poppy and Ted are the latest recruits to the team, although training specialist search dogs is a time-consuming business.

"It will be a couple of years before they are ready," says Stuart.

One of the difficulties the team faces is the overgrown state of many river banks, which the volunteers use quad vehicles to negotiate.

But while the summer months often see a rise in the number of people falling into the River Severn, he is not necessarily convinced that the answer is more fencing, as some people suggest.

"Every time somebody goes missing in the summer, there are calls to put more fences up," he says. "But if somebody has gone in the river, that makes it harder for them to get out.

"The problem often is that when alcohol is involved, common sense goes out the window."

To reduce that risk, the volunteers also carry out river patrols over high-risk periods such as Easter and Christmas, where they direct revellers away from danger spots.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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