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The Next Step in Mutual Aid

One of the greatest aspects of law enforcement is the willingness of agencies and their sworn members to respond to the call for help from their fellow members. When the call goes out for "officer needs help," it's an awesome sight to see the overwhelming response from available local, state and federal agencies and personnel to that call. Agencies you may have never heard of come out to assist, in addition to federal agents and investigative services. These may not typically roll "Code 3" to calls, but they will do so in a heartbeat, not knowing any more than that a fellow member of law enforcement has asked for help. It's a lesson many other government agencies could well learn from, as our nation would be much better for it.

A Mother's Cry for Help.

In September of 2003, a young 18-year old-female was reported missing from Redlands, California, a mid sized bedroom community. Also known as the Navel Orange Capital of the World, Redlands is located 70 miles east of downtown Los Angeles in San Bernardino County. Her mother, a chief petty officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, was on active duty serving in Iraq as part of the port security detail. A BOLO was issued for the missing 18-year-old and her vehicle. Information gathered led detectives to believe her body would be found in one of the many orange groves in their city. Armed with this information, the detectives decided it was prudent to conduct a search of the city's orange groves to search for her body. The challenge they faced was how to search the dozens of square miles of orange groves.

Volunteers Respond

Although the Redlands Police had, at the time, a force of approximately 60 officers and a small, yet highly dedicated group of citizen volunteers, the number of personnel needed to walk every row of the city's orange groves was a daunting task, at best. Fortunately for the Redlands Police Department, their agency was located within the County of San Bernardino, the largest county geographically in the nation and home to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, with 1,400 deputies and over 2,000 well trained and active citizen volunteers. The SBCSD volunteer force is made up of approximately 800 citizen patrol volunteers, 400 search and rescue members, reserve deputy sheriffs, an equestrian patrol, Explorer scouts, chaplains and several other specialized volunteer units.

Recognizing the need for "force multipliers" to help with the search, the Redlands Police contacted the San Bernardino Sheriff's Volunteer Forces Unit on a Friday afternoon, seeking their assistance to provide some of their department's volunteers to assist with the search. That afternoon the call went out to the over 17 SBCSD stations, asking for volunteers to assist the Redlands Police with the search the next day. By 5:00 am the following day, less than 12 hours after receiving the calls, over 140 sheriff's volunteers, consisting of citizen patrol and SAR members, arrived at the staging center to prepare for the massive search effort. Armed with this team of 140 additional personnel, the Redlands Police were able to form 14 teams with one officer per ten SBCSD volunteers, to walk every row of the orange groves looking for signs of a shallow grave or an exposed body. Using a well-planned search grid, the combined forces were able to clear all the city's orange groves by 1:00 pm that day. Sadly, it was later learned that while the young teen's body was in fact buried in an orange grove, it was in a neighboring city, and was later discovered.

The Volunteer Equation

While in the above example the search team was not successful in locating the young teen's body, had the search area been expanded, they most certainly would have. In addition to being able to provide a substantial number of additional "feet on the street" with short notice, there is also a large budget savings to be gained. Based on current average salaries for police officers in Southern California, the cost of paying 140 officers six hours of overtime would have been approximately $37,000 for this one search, assuming they were available in the first place, which they were not. Take a moment to think how many additional bulletproof vests, new hand held radios, specialized armor, MDTs, etc., could be purchased with those savings. Or better put, how many would not be purchased if the city had to pay for the cost of the search, and it's easy to see the dollar value of volunteers.

The Need for Volunteer Mutual Aid Teams

The point: mutual aid agreements, whether written, verbal or just a way of life for members of law enforcement, have been around since the early days of town marshals and four horsepower stagecoaches. However, when it comes to mutual aid agreements for the use of "other than" sworn officers, it's far more the exception than the rule when other agencies' volunteer units are requested. A key component to successfully utilizing other agencies' volunteers in a time of need is to establish agreements in advance. While members of law enforcement within each state are trained to statewide standards, volunteer units training and capabilities vary from agency to agency.

Thought should be given to how local volunteer units can and/or should be utilized for non-enforcement actions. In the case of a search effort where hours of walking through rough terrain is required, units who used only senior volunteers may not be the best choice versus a reserve officer, Explorer scout, and/or citizen patrol unit. Conversely, using senior police volunteers to assist evacuees at a shelter for check-in could be a better choice than highly trained reserve officers. Other items to consider in advance are how will your agency communicate with the responding outside volunteer units, what type of vehicles, if any, do they have available, and what type of emergency training, first aid, CPR or other specialized training have they received which may assist your agency in certain circumstances.

Once you've established a local volunteer mutual aid agreement or VMAT, consider establishing a common item of clothing for outside volunteers to wear which will easily identify them as "trusted and welcomed" members of your team. Something as simple as a light mesh vest, like those used in traffic control, with the letters "VMAT" or "Police Volunteer" on the back and front can be purchased inexpensively. Generally speaking, one size fits all, and can be worn over any form of existing uniform.

Having this type of program established in advance of your agency's potential need for "force multipliers" will help everyone respond and assist in a much more professional and organized approach. As one of the volunteers who responded to the search for the missing young lady mentioned above, I can tell you that without a doubt, every volunteer there that day was extremely proud and honored to have assisted with this tragic situation. Knowing that we were part of a trusted team called upon to help members of law enforcement bring closure for this family while helping to potentially uncover evidence to further help convict the killers was an tremendous experience. In the end, you'll find most people volunteer to help others, not just those in their community. I urge any member of law enforcement reading this article not to overlook the power of volunteers within your local and surrounding agencies in a time of need, and begin establishing volunteer mutual aid agreements now when you can, rather than later when time may be against you.