Can you help find missing children on the beach?
That’s the question being asked of a new army of volunteers after a spike in youngsters vanishing on the sand.
The problem is leaving beach patrollers and Coastguard rescuers swamped ahead of the busy summer – when ‘staycationers’ will descend on the Fylde coast en masse.
With every police officer on duty in Blackpool tasked with hunting for 25 children over the course of two weekends at the end of May and start of June, Sgt Tom Sanderson realised the situation was untenable.
During busy weekends, Blackpool Police and Lytham Coastguard said they hoped volunteers would help to alleviate the pressure on their teams when children are reported missing on Blackpool and St Annes beaches. Pic: Daniel Martino/JPI Media
He said: “As we approach the summer holidays we’re expecting a lot more families at the beach, especially with international travel restrictions.
“But it’s such an operational demand, which is why we’re asking for volunteers to help out.
“During the last bank holiday weekend, we spent 90 officer hours on lost children.
“When a missing child report comes in, every officer on duty is dispatched, which means we aren’t going to domestic incidents, we aren’t out looking for people breaking into cars, we can’t patrol.
Paul Little, station officer at Lytham and Blackpool coastguard, said volunteers would enable his team to focus on life-endangering incidents.
“The majority of the time a child is found within 30 minutes of being reported missing, and usually by their families, so we’re sending police looking round for them and we don’t need to be.
“This is why we’ve got the Coastguard and beach patrol involved, and now obviously we’re looking for our own volunteers as well.”
Operation Nemo will see helpers, including police cadets, man the Prom between Blackpool’s North and South piers, as well as St Annes pier.
They will hand out wristbands to be worn by children and contain their parents’ details, tell visitors about tide times and beach safety, and set up a meeting point where lost children can be reunited with their families.
While Sgt Sanderson said the youngsters are usually tourists, he said nobody was to blame.
He added: “At the end of the day our main job is to safeguard children.
“This is our role. If you looked down a list of things police should be doing, that would absolutely be at the top.
“It’s very rare that a child who lives in the area would go missing from the beach, mostly because residents know the area.
“They know about the tides and when it’s really busy most of them actually tend to avoid the beach.
“This isn’t about wagging fingers or placing the blame on anyone because it’s so easily done.
“Even the most conscientious, caring people can be distracted for a split second.
“And in that time a child could have seen a donkey and wandered off to go and have a look.
“We can’t blame parents and this operation is happening more as a preventative measure.
“The average age of these kids is between around three and 10. After that age we don’t get a lot of reports because parents tend to worry less about older children. They give them a bit more freedom.
“For one case of a missing child we could be sending up to ten patrols. That’s 20 officers.
“Granted it won’t break them off for emergency calls but in terms of proactive patrolling or dealing with investigations, it really affects that.
“So the reason we want volunteers to offer around eight hours of their time one day a weekend is to help our officers get back to doing that.”
Coastguard rescuers working Blackpool, Lytham, and Fleetwood have been drafted in, and Paul Little, station officer at Blackpool and Lytham, said the volunteers would ease the pressure on his team.
He said: “We’re hoping that the operation is going to help us, particularly during the summer months when the beaches get really busy.
“We get numerous reports of missing children, usually between 30 to 40 children a year. It can often be worse in St Annes than in Blackpool because the beach is so much bigger.
“It can take us much longer to get to the water’s edge to search for a lost child, whereas in Blackpool you can usually see out to the water.
“There are three beaches in Blackpool and then up to St Annes so if we can minimise these sorts of call-outs then it will be easier for us.
“We can get back to more of the life-endangering incidents.
“It’s a danger for us as well. We can only be in one place at a time and when we’re travelling between A and B we can only go at national speed limits.
“Our primary concern is to make sure nobody is in the water which can be time consuming for us because quite often a missing child can cover a fair bit of distance.
“I think being able to go out there and build a dialogue with people about becoming a bit more wary of beach conditions and let them know what to do if their child goes missing will help.”
A spokesman for Blackpool Council, which will also be involved with Operation Nemo, said: “We are directly involved and fully supportive of Project Nemo. Our Beach Patrol team alongside other frontline operational staff such as our CCTV operators are working closely with the police and volunteer organisations to ensure the safety of children and vulnerable adults along the Promenade and beach areas.
“Our teams are actively involved with surveillance, enhancing the visibility of meeting points and offering temporary welfare facilities until individuals can be reunited with their families or carers. Last year our Beach Patrol team working with other colleagues and partners played a key role in successfully reuniting 77 lost children or vulnerable adults who had been found in distress when they had become separated.”
Members of the public who want to volunteer will be subject to police vetting and criminal record check.