Sergeant Nicola Barlow-Cook has been with Bedfordshire Police for 23 years. She tells us what it’s like to lead the search for a missing person who is living with dementia…
On 13 February, at about 7.30pm, Bedfordshire Police Force Control Room (FCR) took a call from a man reporting his 80-year-old mother, Margaret, missing. Margaret and her friend travelled back to Bedford on the same bus but were then due to get on to separate busses to return to their respective addresses. Margaret did not arrive home.
I was alerted to Margaret’s case by the Force Control Room; Margaret had been deemed ‘high risk’ because her family suspected she had early stage dementia. She had not been seen for a number of hours, so it was vital that our search was methodical but that we acted as fast as possible. I took responsibility as Bronze Commander, which means I coordinated the search.
I remember immediately being worried about her due to her age and medical condition, the fact that it was dark outside and because temperatures were dropping below freezing.
The call handler who spoke to Margaret’s son had got a description of Margaret and made calls to Bedford Hospital and the Ambulance service to see if they had any information that might help. They had no record of Margaret.
PC Courtenay Fletcher and PC Adam Sugden are deployed to search Bedford town centre. They also view the CCTV footage from the bus depot from the time Margaret was there, to see if this could help trace her movements.
We knew that Margaret had a phone with her, so I asked the Force Control Room to call it. It was switched on but went to voicemail. They called several times throughout our search, but each time the same thing happened.
PC Jason White heads to Margaret’s home to carry out a search of the property, but she is not there. He meets her family; her son has joined the search to find her.
Meanwhile, PC Lee Beddington, Special Constable Dominic Farrow and PC Steve Lawrence also head to Bedford to search for Margaret.
At this point we had five officers out looking for Margaret, and one officer with her family trying to find out where she might have contacts and if there was anywhere she might have wanted to visit, like a previous address or another member of the family.
As time went on, I knew her family must be feeling more and more worried as it was dark and very cold, not a night you would choose to be out on.
We weren’t certain whether she was still in Bedford or whether she’d made her way further afield. We made enquiries in relation to Margaret’s mobile phone and because it was switched on we were able to trace the location of her phone to a phone mast. We mapped the location, which was probably about five miles from Bedford town centre, and sent this information to all the officers.
Thanks to mobile technology they were all able to access this information on the move, and were able to head over to the search area that we’d identified. Without that technology, someone would have had to physically hand out maps, and that’s just not possible in a search like this when everyone is so focused and it’s all hands on deck.
PC Katherine Alison heads out towards the new search area that was identified by tracing Margaret’s phone. She begins to check the roads, but cannot find Margaret.
PC Beddington and SC Farrow leave Bedford and head over to the area where the phone has been traced. They are joined by Sgt Neil Camfield and PC Robin Sutcliffe who have joined the search. PC Conrad Blake is now also en route with a police dog.
About half an hour later, the phone was still showing in the same area and there had been no movement. The area we were searching covered quite a lot of open countryside and has a river. We needed eyes in the sky, so the helicopter was called.
By this time we had seen evidence of Margaret on the CCTV which captured her leaving the bus stop looking confused and changing direction a lot. She had seemingly watched her friend get on the bus and leave, and then got confused and left the bus station.
Now we knew her last direction of travel, we could link that to the area we had mapped out after tracing her phone, and have a clearer idea of the route she could have travelled. I asked the on call press officer to put out an appeal to see if the public had seen Margaret.
Time was ticking on and we had serious concerns for Margaret’s safety and welfare, and all available officers were deployed to that area.
PC Steve Lawrence, Insp Jason Cahill and Sgt Chris Smith have now joined the search, and are checking pubs and supermarkets in the search area to find out if anyone has seen Margaret. There are now at least 13 officers on the ground involved in the search.
I spoke to the on-duty POLSA (a specially trained police officer who is trained to plan and manage search activity) and he arranged for a team of 10 Search and Rescue volunteers to come and join us.
I was keeping an eye on our rolling log where we were recording the developments in the incident. PC Beddington and Special Constable Farrow had made their way towards the mast where Margaret’s phone was traced, and had made the decision to walk the length of the road next to it to search in the woodland at the side of the pitch black country road.
At 10.39pm, PC Beddington and Special Constable Farrow find Margaret in a ditch, face up with her eyes open, covered in freezing water and brambles and suffering from hypothermia. Both officers lower themselves into the ditch to pull her to safety, and remain with her until an ambulance arrives. She is taken to hospital for treatment.
Throughout the search we were working against the clock, especially because the weather was bad and this was something I remember being really concerned about.
I can only imagine how terrifying it is to be living with dementia and realizing you don’t know where you are. Someone once told me that the early stages are the worst because you have periods of lucidity where you know exactly where you are and what’s going on, mixed with periods where you are confused.
It’s fulfilling to lead on a search like this though, and to know you have helped someone who is in trouble. When Margaret was found, although we were concerned as she had hypothermia, I was so relieved and happy for the family.
Including the people in departments like the Force Control Room, CID, the Intelligence team and the helicopter crew, around 30 people were involved in the search for missing Margaret.
She was found cold and scared but, thankfully, alive.