JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A local nonprofit organization is hoping it can make a difference during search and rescue missions.
Northeast Florida has seen several cases this year where law enforcement personnel have asked other agencies and sometimes even the public to help out with their search efforts.
Most notable of those were the cases of missing toddler Lonzie Barton in July, missing 8-year-old Peyton Blodgett, who has autism and was found safe after wandering from his home in Baker County, and missing 9-year-old Leo Walker, who also had autism and drowned in a swampy area not far from his Live Oak home.
Lonzie is presumed dead but his body hasn't been found.
Steve Smith, the founder of River City Search and Rescue, said the more trained people law enforcement can get out during search and rescue missions, the better chance rescuers have of finding something.
Smith has a military and law enforcement background and has conducted search and rescue operations in other states. He said there is clearly a need for additional help, and he's ready to provide it.
Smith said searching is a tough job and every second counts. That's why he decided a little help could go a long way, especially in Jacksonville and nearby counties.
"Crime doesn't stop. Accidents don't stop happening because somebody goes missing,” Smith said. “Life still goes on in the city."
Smith said that while volunteer searchers want to do everything they can to help, training them on scene can be a lengthy process.
“A trained team of five can cover a much larger area than an untrained group of 50,” Smith said. “They have a higher probability of detection and they also know how to work that area safely and can work for a lot longer period of time."
News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith, who's no relation to Steve, said an untrained person may not know what to look out for or how to spot possible evidence.
"As long as the police department understands what their training is, what training they have and what they can do and they already have their own equipment, they can deploy them a lot faster,” Gil Smith said.
Steve Smith said dressing properly and knowing how to work in certain elements can be a major issue as well.
"You can't help anybody if you yourself become a victim,” he said. “Well-meaning civilians try to help when they sometimes become a victim just because they are not trained to avoid certain situations."
Steve Smith said he's looking for volunteers and donors to help with the organization, which is hosting a training seminar with the National Association of Search & Rescue at the beginning of January. Anyone can attend the seminar, but there is a fee for the training. Participants will receive a state certificate afterward.
For more information on participating, click here.