How to Form a Search Party

When someone goes missing, the first action that the community takes is usually to create a search party, and with good cause: the first 48 hours after an individual goes missing are crucial, and finding the person in that time will give them the best chance of surviving the incident. Starting a search party can seem like a daunting task, but with the right information and the right tools, it’s actually not all that difficult. If someone you love has recently gone missing, here are some tips on how to start a search party:
How to Form a Search Party


  1. Report the Missing Person to Law Enforcement First

    Before you form a search party, you should immediately report the missing person to law enforcement. Even if you suspect the missing person has run away, or may be hiding, there’s a chance that they may have actually been abducted, and you don’t want to be on the losing end of that bet. Remember, in many jurisdictions, you must wait at least 24 hours before you can report a missing adult, although this trend is continuing to change and may not be required in your area; children have no waiting period, and can be reported to police as soon as you realize the child is missing or has been abducted.

    With law enforcement on your side, you can include the local police department in your search. You will have the added benefit of the police organizing and controlling the search, which can have a huge impact on the search party’s effectiveness. Listen to the guidance law enforcement offers; remember, they are experts, and have likely dealt with missing persons before, so they will know the best way to initiate the search.

  2. Rally Your Neighbors and Members of Your Community

    Once you have informed law enforcement, start knocking on your neighbors’ doors. Ask everyone who answers to help participate in the search party, and have them contact their friends and relatives to help, as well. If you can reach just five neighbors, and they reach five friends or family members, imagine how large your search party will become if that chain of contact continues. Accept any help from any person who offers.

    Also ask your neighbors and others who live close to your home to search their houses and properties thoroughly. There’s a chance that the missing person may be in the area, especially if the search was started soon after they disappeared. Even if you have no reason to believe they entered someone else’s home or property, they could have hid there for protection, or they could have been brought there against their will. Encourage your neighbors to search areas like under furniture, in the basement, in crawl spaces, attics, and in the back yard - especially if their properties are heavily wooded.

    Tip: Although you will find that many children will be eager to participate in the search - especially if it is their friend or schoolmate who has gone missing - should keep children and younger teenagers at home. Children can become injured or lost while searching areas that are wooded or that are in highly-trafficked areas; further, if a child is believed to have been abducted, allowing a large group of children to roam the area where the child was snatched can lead to another child being abducted, as well. For children that ask to participate in the search, encourage them to search their homes and bedrooms from top to bottom, emphasizing the importance of this task and making a point to praise them for their help in the search.

  3. Collect and Distribute Any Supplies You Can Find

    Your search party will benefit greatly with the use of tools like flashlights, walkie talkies, maps, crow bars and other blunt objects (for prying back doors, flipping rocks, etc) and other items that can be used in the search. When gathering people to participate in your search party, ask them to bring along any of these items that they may have, and offer any extra supplies they have to other members of the search party. Flashlights would be the most important tool to have, especially if you are searching during nighttime hours or in areas that are heavily covered by trees. Walkie talkies can help your search party communicate any information they find, keep search party members safe by keeping in constant contact, and increase the overall effectiveness of your search.

    Other items you may want to collect include bottles of water, snacks, and food for search party members to fuel their efforts, sweaters and blankets to keep search party members warm as evening approaches, and chairs and tables where volunteers can take breaks when needed.

  4. Set Up a Center Contact Point

    Have a few volunteers stay behind so they can help organize and command the search party’s efforts. These volunteers can be in charge of collecting and handing out any supplies that the search party needs, helping search party members rest and recover from searching, passing along information that may be important to the search, and keeping track of everyone involved in the search effort.

    One of the most helpful things these volunteers can do is keep a sign-in sheet, which doesn’t need to be prepared prior to account for those who are searching, which could waste precious time you don’t have. Grab a pad of paper or spiral notebook - or better yet, a 3-ring binder with lined, looseleaf paper - and label a blank sheet with the date. Have every single search party member write their name down before they head out to begin searching, along with the time that they left. As search party members return, have them sign out by writing the time they stopped searching next to their sign-in time. This will help you keep track of all of your search party members, so you can be sure that no one is accidentally left behind. You can also have the volunteers at the center point do regular checks to ensure that search party members are not out for too long, and call them back in when they need to take a break or eat something, so that they don’t overwork or exhaust themselves while searching.

  5. Band Together to Start Your Search

    When your search party is formed and ready to begin, have everyone stand in a straight line, side by side, as far as you can stretch across. Then, have everyone link arms, and begin walking forward, together, as a group. Keep your arms linked together for as long as you can manage; not only will this help you cover the area thoroughly, it will also prevent you from losing a member of your search party while searching deep or wooded areas.

    Once you have covered the immediately surrounding areas, have the search party break into to groups. Send the first group back to cover the areas that you just searched, to give those spots a second look - something that seemed unimportant the first time may be discovered by a fresh set of eyes the next time. The second group should begin to cover a wider area, beyond that of the initial search range. This group may want to use vehicles to cover more ground in a shorter period of time. If you have supplies like walkie talkies at your disposal, hand them out to members of both groups so they can continue to keep in touch as they continue their efforts.

  6. Take Regular Breaks and Schedule Shifts

    Encourage every member of your search party to take regular breaks. Even though some members will want to spend every possible moment they can out looking, it’s important to remind every search party participant that they need to take care of their own heath and well-being not only for safety reasons, but so they can do the best job possible while searching. An overtired, hungry, or physically exhausted search volunteer is liable to miss what could be an important clue. They could also endanger themselves or other volunteers if they are too tired to continue searching, or find themselves alone and unable to get back or call for help. Providing food, water, and materials for resting - like chairs, fold-out beds or sleeping bags, and pillows and blankets - can help search party members take care of their needs while still actively participating in search and rescue efforts.

    If you can, have your center point volunteers work out a tentative schedule, and ask search party members to choose time slots where they can spend time searching, so that there is a new group of searchers going in as others come out to take a break, go home, or head to work. This will help to not only keep the most able-minded and bodied searchers out looking, but help searchers focus on taking care of themselves in a time where they are apt to ignore their needs and wear themselves out by continuing to search when they shouldn’t be.

  7. Continue to Search for as Long as Necessary

    Search party efforts often end earlier than most people would like, either due to a lack of leads, or a lack of willingness on the part of law enforcement to continue. If you have reason to believe that the missing person or child may be out lost somewhere - especially in particularly hot or cold conditions, in mountainous or woody areas, or in areas where there is a potentially danger source of water - then you do not need to give up your search efforts simply because law enforcement is throwing in the towel. You can certainly continue your searching for as long as you believe is necessary, and as long as you have willing participants.