“When you’re in brambles up to your armpits, having ViewRanger on hand to ensure you’re heading in the right direction is a very useful thing indeed!”
So says Sly Jenkins, a volunteer member of Wiltshire Lowland Search and Rescue (WILSAR) for the past three years and a keen advocate of smartphone navigation app ViewRanger.
Sly’s day job is as an engineer with the RAF, flying on a C130 Hercules. He is often required to drop everything to be scrambled to an humanitarian aid effort or to a warzone. His experience in the military meant Sly was well-equipped to take on the challenge of lowland search and rescue.
“I was looking for a local organisation to volunteer some time towards when I’m not at work,” Sly says. “I spotted a guy wearing a t-shirt with the WILSAR logo on it and I asked him about it. I was interested, called them up and coincidentally they were having a new members’ presentation that evening. The rest as they say, is history!”
WILSAR’s work, and that of more than 90% of UK Lowland and mountain Search and Rescue (SAR) teams, is supported by ViewRanger’s Voluntary Search and Rescue (VSAR) programme. The company provides detailed, downloadable topographic maps to members of accredited SAR teams. The maps combine with a smartphone’s own GPS system to allow users to pinpoint their location and accurately track their route. The app supports the traditional map and compass skills learnt by every search technician.
Sly’s initial SAR training involved a three-day course which teaches the basic search techniques, missing person behaviour and point of find procedures. The course culminated in a simulated call-out exercise in the Savernake Forest, where the theory was put into practice.
WILSAR can receive a call-out at any time of the day or night and they are always initiated by the police. The constabulary control room contacts the duty search manager who takes the details and alerts WILSAR members by text message. A rendezvous point is selected and available team members meet there to be assigned to a search team.
Sly elaborates: “I switch ViewRanger’s tracking feature on as soon as we leave on a call out, that way it’s always there as a back up. Although it does not replace paper maps and compass skills, it is great for a quick grid reference. You can glance at it, cross reference your map to check you’re in the right place, and continue on.”
Call-outs are often to try and find despondents; people who are depressed, suicidal potentially a danger to themselves. Dementia sufferers who have got lost and young children who have gone missing are other common call outs. The amount of times WILSAR is called out can vary, but it roughly averages about once a week.
“If we find something significant or potentially useful to the police, we can mark it as a ‘point of interest’ on ViewRanger and then pass the location or grid reference on to the authorities. Being able to download the mapping in advance so it is available even when you don’t have phone signal is great, and it saves on battery life,” says Sly.
ViewRanger has other uses, as Sly explains: “Outside of my SAR work, I use it when I’m out walking the dog, when she wants me to find a way to a pub for lunch!
“I enjoy the buzz of being outdoors, the sense of urgency that surrounds a SAR call-out, the pride I take in the work I do and the camaraderie of being part of a team. A lot of WILSAR members are current or ex-military, but that said, there are lots of ‘civilians’ in our team too. SAR work is something that anyone, regardless of background, can enjoy.”