Crime Commission Recommends Efforts to Improve Search and Rescue

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December 2, 2014

The Virginia State Crime Commission met Tuesday with a long list of items to recommend to the General Assembly. On the list, ways to improve the effectiveness of search and rescue efforts, in the wake of the disappearance of UVa. student Hannah Graham.

Albemarle Country Sheriff Chip Harding says search and rescue effectiveness has long been an issue in Virginia. Harding invited two Crime Commission members to Albemarle County during the search for Graham, and was interviewed by the panel for his input.

"Law enforcement is behind the curve in Virginia and I absolutely know that without question," Harding said.

After spending 30 years as an investigator in a city police department, Harding realized he was missing an important skill set when he moved to the county.

"When I started working with search and rescue I realized, 'oh my God. I don't know much about this at all," said Harding.

According to Sheriff Harding many law enforcement agencies lack the proper training when it comes to search and rescue. He says resources, such as a grid search used in the Hannah Graham case, often aren't utilized because law enforcement doesn't know about it.

"Theres a lot that goes into this versus saying 'let's just go out and search all of the united states,'" said Harding. "I've been on cases that turned out to be an abduction and there was never a grid search done the way we would do it, because law enforcement had never been exposed to it."

Harding suggested to the Crime Commission a search and rescue component be added to during academy training, as well as presentations at police and sheriff conferences.

While there were a dozen recommendations the Crime Commission has on its agenda that pertained to search and rescue, Sheriff Harding says having only two men oversee the state's entire search and rescue efforts is problematic.

"Search and rescue in Virginia is volunteer based, and you only have a couple of guys overseeing it all. That's ludicrous," Harding said.

Sheriff Harding says creating additional fulltime positions would allow for more volunteers to be trained, and the more searchers in a case, the faster clues could be found, suspects located, and missing persons brought home.

"You can't expect your volunteer base to run every time, it could be every other weekend. You'll wear these people out and a lot of them will lose interest," said Harding.

Harding says in wake of Graham's disappearance the department has 70 new volunteers people who want to be trained, which would almost double the size of the department's search group. Harding hopes to get those volunteers trained in the near future.

Mark Eggeman who helped coordinate the search for Graham with Virginia's Department of Emergency Management called the recommendations being presented to the general assembly "encouraging."