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Virginia Sheriffs’ Association
The Voice of Virginia’s Sheriffs & Deputies

Imagine this scenario. It is nearly 9 pm when your dispatch center receives a 911 call in regards to a five-year-old child, who went missing two hours earlier. At this point, your department responds with several units to investigate and do an initial canvass of the neighborhood. Local volunteer fire and rescue resources are called to assist with the search. Initial searches have turned up no clue as to the whereabouts of the child.

Now you are facing several dilemmas. Where to search now? Has your department had any formal search and rescue training? You have limited resources and personnel within your jurisdiction and a number of paid personnel that have responded to the search are on overtime. Given the financial hardships faced by so many localities, an extended search effort could place an excessive financial burden on a locality that is already struggling to stay financially viable.

So how can these issues be mitigated or eliminated? The Commonwealth of Virginia Search and Rescue program (COVSAR) is an excellent resource to help eliminate some of the issues faced by law enforcement when conducting search operations.

The COVSAR program is a branch of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM). COVSAR includes 22 professionally trained, volunteer, search and rescue teams throughout the State of Virginia with approximately 700 personnel available for search operations. What is the best part of these groups? They are available for search incidents throughout Virginia at no expense to the responsible agency, e.g., law enforcement, emergency management or fire and rescue agency.

The teams that make up the COVSAR program are considered state assets, as each team has a signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with VDEM.  With liability and workers compensation insurance to each group provided by VDEM as a condition of the MOU and many of the groups providing their own liability insurance, the responsible agency that has requested assistance from COVSAR, e.g., Sheriff, Fire Department, Police Department, can be relieved of financial burden involving a COVSAR team or team member.

The training and qualification standard for each COVSAR SAR discipline is set forth by the Virginia Search and Rescue Council, known as VASARCO. VASARCO is made up of representatives from each of the SAR groups holding an MOU with VDEM, a representative from the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association and a representative from VDEM. VASARCO meets once per quarter to discuss issues that pertain to SAR in Virginia and to allow the various SAR discipline committees to meet face to face to address business and policy matters.

The categories of SAR resources available through COVSAR which may be requested by the responsible agency are varied. One of the available categories of SAR resources, ground searchers, includes Field Team Members and Field Team Leaders that make up the greatest portion of most SAR responses. SAR Management resources include Management Team Members, Management Team Leaders and Search Mission Coordinators, who provide search planning and oversee search operations as well as consult with and act as a liaison to the responsible agency during a search incident.

There are numerous specialty resources available through COVSAR. The K9 specialty resources include, Air Scent, Tracking, Trailing, Human Remains Detection (HRD), Water Recovery HRD and K9 First Responder (Disaster SAR). Tracking is another available specialty resource. Field Team Signcutters are trained to be more clue aware searchers, looking for signs of passage of the subject and working to determine their direction of travel.  Virginia has many qualified Field Team Signcutters, with one SAR group dedicated to only this resource. Other specialty resources available through COVSAR include airborne (rotary and fixed wing), equine, cave rescue and wilderness technical rescue.

Requesting resources is as easy as contacting the VDEM EOC at 1-800-468-8892, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. VDEM SAR Coordinator Mark Eggeman and Deputy SAR Coordinator Billy Chrimes are available to coordinate resources and consult with any agency in matters of search and rescue prior to, or during, any search incident.

To help agencies manage search incidents in the early stages, VDEM offers a 16 hour course titled SAR for the First Responder. SAR for the First Responder is a 16 hour course designed for law enforcement and fire departments that teach skills, tactics and methods to plan, manage and execute search operations during the first 12 hours of a search incident. Contact Billy Chrimes for more information.

Visit the VASARCO website at for a list of member SAR agencies. Reach out to your local SAR agency. They will be happy to build working relationships with your agency that will be invaluable during your next SAR incident.

By Bart Drummond and Bryan Saunders