The hidden volunteers only seen when disaster strikes

They hope it will never happen − but when disaster strikes there’s a specialist team of highly-trained and dedicated West Midlands Police volunteers ready to spring into action.

Hidden amongst thousands of officers and staff, members of the Casualty Bureau will drop their day jobs and assemble at a moment’s notice in the event of a serious crime or catastrophe. Managed by Force CID, they join together to answer specially set-up phone lines, created for anything from terrorist attacks to major police witness appeals.

Whether it’s the investigation into the murder of Christina Edkins or the aftermath of 2011 riots, when lives are in the balance the West Midlands Casualty Bureau is ready to mobilise. “It’s people from the Casualty Bureau who’re on the other end of the line when you see emergency numbers flashed up on the news after a disaster or appeal,” said manager Lisa Lacey.

“But we’re not just call-takers; we’re an integral part of any investigation. Our job is to gather information, piece it together and help push the inquiry forward while also reassuring the public.”

Her colleague PC Tracey Pearson added: “In most cases we’re taking calls from hundreds if not thousands of people who’re worried about loved ones who they fear may have been caught up in an accident or natural disaster. But we also open up whenever we’re expecting lots of enquiries from the community or the media, such as a high-profile murder enquiry or a missing person investigation such as a Child Rescue Alert.

“We have to process a great deal of information but it’s not always the same job; every incident is different and you just never know what you’re going to get.”

All the data collected by the volunteers is put into a nationally recognised police computer system which cross-references the information to identify possible matches.

The government requires all police forces to be in a position to be able to provide a Casualty Bureau in the event of an emergency under the Civil Contingencies Act. It means CB managers Lisa and Tracey must ensure their volunteers’ skills are constantly kept up to date, through a continuously evolving training programme.

“We always have to keep up with technology,” said Tracey. “With people so easily able to keep in touch with one and other, it can often make our job much more difficult. The people who call us will often know their loved one has been caught up in something because they’ve seen their last location on Facebook or Twitter but that puts us in an awkward situation.

“We can’t afford to make mistakes so we’ll never give out information until we can guarantee it’s correct, even when sometimes the caller already knows the worst has happened.”

The team doesn’t only respond to local emergencies and appeals; they are part of a national rota for Casualty Bureaux which means for twelve weeks of every year they could be called upon to staff the phone lines for any international incident involving UK citizens.

When the national emergency number was circulated following the London bombings on 7th July 2005 West Midlands Police’s Casualty Bureau was the first to take calls from the public.

Lisa was training new volunteers on the last day of their four-day course when she was contacted by the Metropolitan Police asking for the phone lines to be opened. “That was very strange and something I remember well,” she said. “We were all in shock watching it unfold on the TV and dealing with thousands of calls from people who feared their friends or relatives could be involved.”

Despite all the training though, Lisa says the volunteers can never truly prepare for the calls they receive: “They could be very upset or they could be giving vital intelligence and you’ve got to take each call differently.

“If someone is unfortunate enough to lose a loved one, the reality is that there’s not much we can do but we can make a big difference if we deal with them compassionately, record their details accurately and ultimately aid the overall criminal investigation. At the very worst time, the least we can do is our very best.”

The last time the West Midlands Casualty Bureau opened was in support of Police Scotland and missing child Mikaeel Kular in January this year. When next major incident unfolds those 174 volunteers will be ready to muster once again.