May 26, 2021
JFRD and JSO combine resources to enhance search and rescue efforts.
Photo of JFRD Fire Chief Keith Powers, Operations Chief Steve Riska, and Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Personnel at News Conference

Jacksonville Revs Up Search Engine For Missing Persons Calls
Let’s back up to December 2019 in Jacksonville, Fla.

Two siblings, age 5 and 6, have wandered from their front yard, and their father is depending on the city’s public safety personnel to locate the boy and girl.  The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) and the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department (JFRD) launch the search with 150 pairs of boots on the ground, but it’s already late afternoon.

As darkness covers Jacksonville, the first day of the search ends. Brian Williams will have to wait until the next day for the search to locate his children to resume.

Several hours into the second day, the commitment to finding the children is full on. Urgency is also on the rise because the mild December temperatures are forecast to plummet. Heavy rain is also looming. Fortunately, the team is operating with a little more information on the probable location of the youngsters.

First responders are traversing a specific wooded and wet area on the recommendation of a search analyst with a fire rescue background and an acquired knowledge of the behavior of missing persons.  He encourages them to advance their efforts further down the search line.

Suddenly, the search team discovers the brother and sister seeking refuge in a small structure that one firefighter described as a “doghouse with a flat roof.” The children are alert, and after two days of observation at a local hospital, they return to their home and their father. Jacksonville Fire Chief Keith Powers and Sheriff Mike Williams are overjoyed at the results, and so is every person directly invested or just keeping track from the sidelines.

Law enforcement and fire rescue officials then start a conversation about systematically pooling their resources to create a force multiplier that could expedite search results and increase the odds of a positive outcome. The discussions lead to a new collaboration in Jacksonville known as MEPSAR, which stands for Missing Endangered Persons Search and Rescue.

"When you have an endangered or missing person or small child, it is time sensitive," Sheriff Williams said during a news conference in May at Jacksonville’s City Hall. "The quicker you can get people on the ground, searching in those wood lines and trying to cover those lakes is incredibly important."

Reacting to recent local successful search efforts, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said, “I am confident that this collaborative, smart approach to missing persons cases will be a national model for agencies and municipalities throughout the country to emulate.”

That is precisely Chief Powers’ vision beyond Jacksonville: “We want to get this program out to the state and beyond so others can follow suit and adopt.”

The news conference was the public announcement of MEPSAR, but the early evolution of the program had already yielded numerous positive results, as well as moments of closure for difficult situations. Some of the quickest successful urban and suburban searches occur by simply dispatching in-service companies to ride their territories.

In addition to the success that comes from involving additional personnel with specialized training, MEPSAR also relies upon technology. Both JFRD and JSO have established drone programs with pilots certified through a federal testing program. JFRD also has a sophisticated mobile command center and a separate rehab unit to aid all personnel during operations. JFRD’s expertise in urban search and rescue is a technical asset and includes a K-9 team. JSO also has a K-9 team.