AROUND 2300 missing people are found in Glasgow every year thanks to search operations that can end in tragedy or joy.

There are few more anxious waits than that of a family member desperate for their loved one to be found.

Investigations are often complex and involve multiple specialist officers – from air and ground search teams to the dog unit and dive unit.

Coordinating these hunts are highly skilled officers known as Police Licensed Search Advisors (PolSA).

Sergeant Austin Burke is based in Glasgow and had dealt with hundreds of search operations.

These might be pre-planned for a missing person who has been gone long term but where intelligence tells police of their last sighting or known location.

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Austin said: "Whatever puts them in a certain area, we are going to populate that area with licensed search officers.

"The reason we used licensed search officers is that it might be more challenging in terms of the ground if it's an outside space where others specialists can't cover or they maybe want a higher level of assurance that somebody's not within that area.

"It's not a one size fits all.

"As a police search advisor we utilise every available asset we have but they're not always available to us.

"The helicopter can't fly in bad weather, the dive marine unit can't go in to certain areas in terms of getting their boats in.

Glasgow Times:

"It is not an exact science but it is all intelligence lead."

PolSAs undergo a four week training course at the Police National Search Centre in England and, once successfully completed, they are licensed by the Home Office.

The licence, who covers counter-terrorism and searching, allows officers to provide search and tactical advice to investigating teams.

The PolSA is attached to an operation support unit of search teams and they mobilise those teams to wherever they are needed.

Search teams, as told earlier this week in the Glasgow Times, are also licensed by the Home Office and those groups work hand in hand.

In the support unit there are 60 licensed search officers with five teams covering the west of Scotland all with two or three PolSAs on each shift.

While based in the west, Austin will work across the country, either travelling to where the search is ongoing or giving support remotely.

When the call comes in that a person is missing, the information will be processed and given a grading related to how urgent the situation is.

Police will consider myriad issues such as whether it is an immediate concern, what information there is about the person, if they have dementia or are a child.

Austin added: "Every call is important, some are more urgent than others and that is the nature of missing people unfortunately."

Response officers will be sent out to the person making the report to gather as much background information as possible and they give another grading.

They will take witness statements and build a profile of who the missing person is.

If the person has been gone for several days the, Austin says, officers must "go back in time" to look for CCTV, bank transactions and their last known movements.

He added: "There's a lot of information that can be captured but the longer the time span goes, the more difficult it is to collate that information."

Sometimes missing people aren't actually missing - they may have gone out for the day and not told family, they might have merely locked themselves out of the house.

Only the cases categorised as high risk come to PolSAs like Austin, and some medium risk cases too.

They will then start looking at what specialist assistance search teams are needed and they produce an advice document with background information on the missing person's profile.

That profile and other information will go into the "national missing persons application" where it can be accessed by all officers involved in the case and constantly updated with fresh intel.

Austin said: "Missing voluntarily tends to be the most prevalent.

"A person has made a conscious decision to remove themselves from their home address or place of work and not tell anyone or has disappeared for a variety of reasons but just not communicated where they are going to go."

Statistics are a vital tool in the search with PolSAs using a set of data called the Grampian statistics that use information from missing persons cases over the past 20 years.

Austin added: "It's not an exact science but it tells us that somebody of that age group is most likely to be on foot, in a car.

"The time they've been away lets us more or less tell the distance they'll be or the most prevalent area they might go to.

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"It's an investigative starter for 10 in terms of where to start building our search parameters."

Information during the search will change constantly.

Austin said: "Immediate family can bring a lot of information to it.

"But then when we speak to their best pal three or four days later actually it turns out they weren't giving much to the family but they've spilled their guts to their best pal and potentially then the friend has more information that's actionable for us."

Some missing people don't want to be found - they may be planning to start a new life alone or with a new partner.

In those cases, police will satisfy themselves that the person is safe but they are not obliged to pass on details of their whereabouts to family.

Austin said: "We would update the family that they are safe and well but not give their location.

"It can be difficult but that is essentially a problem between persons in families and not for us to get involved in."

Searches didn't stop during the pandemic but did add pressure to the teams, particularly in the early days of the crisis.

Austin said: "We had to deploy with white suits and the appropriate masks and gloves, to make sure we were protecting the public and ourselves because ultimately if our department was wiped out with covid then we wouldn't have a response to high risk missing people.

Glasgow Times:

"The early days were very difficult, very challenging, quite nervous.

"But once we had a protocol in place on how to be covid compliant our teams stepped up and were tremendous.

"There was a steely determination to give the public the service they deserve.

"Which we always strive to do, but especially during lockdowns when people were a bit more stressed and afraid, we just want them to feel safe in their police and what we can respond and give them.

"And that's always true but especially in times of adversity.

"It sounds cheesy but it was how it felt."

Austin has worked across a variety of roles in Police Scotland but says missing persons has been "most rewarding".

He said: "For the obvious reason - returning loved ones to their families.

"There's not much greater reward in keeping people safe than that."

He added: "It's not easy. You do have to learn to leave stuff at the door but that's not to say that you don't care about every single missing person and it brings it's own rewards but it can be dark in places as well.

"It does feel a bit weird talking about it because we never take a curtain call, we always work in the shadows.

"We very rarely get thanks and we don't really worry about that because it's the job we do."