The Search

by Brad Dennis

On February 27, 2002 a volunteer search party located the remains of kidnap and murder victim Danielle Van Dam, affirming once and for all that a well-disciplined volunteer effort is a viable and often times necessary component of a missing child investigation.

Trained and organized by the Friendswood, Texas based Laura Recovery Center Foundation, the volunteer effort relieved law enforcement of the time consuming and personnel intensive task of conducting a physical search for the missing seven-year-old. The sense of duty and professional attitude adopted by the volunteer searchers enabled law enforcement to focus their limited resources on other critical areas of investigation.

(See our Klaaskids National Search Center for Missing Children pages for information about a free service offered by

Massive volunteer efforts like the one undertaken on behalf of Danielle Van Dam are not always necessary. Some local law enforcement agencies are able to call upon their own search and rescue resources while other agencies require the assistance of volunteer units. Unfortunately, as in any other aspect of life, there are disreputable search and rescue organizations that will exploit your situation to further their own self-serving needs. Therefore, you should always check with your jurisdictional law enforcement agency prior to accepting the assistance of outside agencies. They will confirm whether or not you are dealing with credible organizations. Another very good resource, the National Association of Search and Rescue, maintains a list of credible search and rescue agencies and how to contact them on their website

The men and women that make up America’s search and rescue teams are dedicated professionals that can and will assist you. A proper and professional search conducted in a timely manner can assist investigators in a variety of ways. Tracking dogs can provide a direction of travel; ground searches that cover large areas can help identify evidence and secure crime scenes; air searches can eliminate large tracts of land and water searches can cover otherwise inaccessible areas.

Search And Rescue Resources Available To You

Incident Commanders – are your search coordinators. If you have numerous agencies responding or a large number of citizens wanting to search, it is critical that an Incident Commander organize the efforts. The Incident Commander needs to assign searchers in high probability areas, construct a viable search plan, and brief/debrief the search teams. The Incident Commander is also an important liaison with law enforcement.

Ground Searchers – employ proper ground search techniques including grid search formations. Many of these teams use the latest technology including Global Positioning System (GPS) map technology, night vision equipment and listening devices.

Combining a couple of trained ground searchers with a group of community volunteers expands your search capability and ensures that your search teams are using proper search techniques and will ultimately aid and not impair the investigation by properly preserving any evidence they may uncover.

K-9’s – search and rescue K-9’s are trained in a number of disciplines that can help the search effort. Scent specific tracking dogs are able to locate escape routes and direction of travel by using a scent article of the child’s. Air scenting dogs are used in fields and buildings to search for the presence of human scent. Cadaver dogs can be used on land and water. Your law enforcement agencies can provide you with information on credible search dogs in your area.

What You Can Do

  1. Following initial notification to law enforcement agencies insist that they immediately enlist the tracking dogs and other search and rescue resources.
  2. Do not wash any of your child’s bedding material or clothing articles. Do not collect or touch these articles! K-9 handlers or investigators will collect these articles and preserve your child’s scent.
  3. Preserve the integrity of your property by keeping unnecessary people out of your home until investigators have cleared any potential crime scenes. You do not want potential evidence unnecessarily disturbed, altered or destroyed.