“Volunteering gives a great sense of satisfaction and achievement” – David


I was born in Malta and spent my formative years in the West Country. I never expected to end up in Cardiff, but I have spent all my working and volunteering life in the city since 1996.

Equipped with a Master’s degree from Sussex University I began my new life here as a Social Scientist at Cardiff University. My existence as a young academic proved less than exhilarating so being a recent business graduate I decided to set up my own Cardiff-based security company. In order to accrue the relevant experience I embarked upon a series of assignments in a variety of private security companies in tandem with the odd specialist course. I took one-on-one boxing and martial arts classes under the auspices of my ex-military friends – who were already on “the circuit” – along with some close protection and surveillance courses.

Looking back this was an exciting time in a prosperous city and I was young and fearless. I worked as a bouncer at the Metro Bar in Charles Street for a while. Bizarrely this was with a Welsh friend who did the same degree as me when I was at Plymouth University a couple of years earlier. He had also gone on to do a Master’s making us the most educated bouncers in Cardiff with four degrees between us! John continues to manage the doors around Cardiff, despite earning a fair old whack as a Health & Safety Consultant, albeit with a black belt in Aikido. I was also a ‘bodyguard’ for a while working for media clients in Cardiff (which is not half as exciting as it sounds), a ‘private detective’ for a local solicitor (surveillance and serving writs) and even a ‘store detective’ in some of Cardiff’s most high risk shops (mainly arresting professional shoplifters in the city).

It quickly became clear that if I was ever to progress in the private security industry with the “right stuff” I would need some form of military experience. To that end I joined my local volunteer Territorial Army Unit for three years and went on to become a Cadet Instructor for a year. This was where the volunteer bug really took hold…

On doing a bit of research into local volunteering at the Wales Council for Voluntary Action’(WCVA, Fitzalan Place) I noticed that the Cardiff And Vale Rescue Association (CAVRA) were looking for volunteers right on my Cardiff Bay doorstep. The rest, as they
say, is history!

I started as a team member 10 years ago and have progressed up the ranks to a Trustee and Director. I knocked the idea of starting up a company on the head and paid the mortgage with a job at the Assembly. Though I would never be rich I would be making a difference to the local community doing something I loved – if only part-time. When money is not the motivation a different side of the human condition emerges…

CAVRA was founded in 1998 at a time when flooding was overwhelming the emergency services in Cardiff and the Vale. It is an entirely voluntary search and rescue organisation, and a registered charity. Our purpose is to provide back-up personnel and frontline assistance to the Emergency Services (Police, HM Coastguard etc) in a range of situations, including searches for missing persons, during times of adverse weather conditions, natural disaster or civil emergency. We are a lowland search and rescue unit specialising in flood and swift water rescue as well as recovery. At present CAVRA has around 30 volunteers. We are highly trained in First Aid and some of us have specialist skills in land search, All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) rescue, dog handling and water rescue. We also have a Rescue Boat on permanent standby in Cardiff Bay.

Career highlights include receiving a volunteer of the year award in 2007 for getting police officers to work using 4x4s when the snow had closed most of the roads. I was also a Rescue Boat Medic when one of world’s most dangerous events the Motor Ski-ing Championships came to Cardiff Bay. I have previously been a Director of Training and Public Relations but my current role is Director of Aquatic Operations and Specialist Aquatic Body Recovery (SABR). I essentially fulfill four roles as a Rescue Boat Coxswain, rescue swimmer, medic and dog handler.

Bobby is my latest dog and the only dog I have trained in Search and Rescue. I rescued him myself from Croft Kennels in Bridgend. I was looking for a medium sized dog that I could train up as a Cadaver Dog. I ended up with a large boxer-cross who has an uncanny knack for finding the living! Boxers are not normally good search dogs but Bob is crossed with something (we don’t know what!), giving him some invaluable traits. Normally Search dogs are air sniffing tracker dogs trained to national standards.

Bob has been obedience trained externally but Search trained in-house (we also have Newfoundlands and St Bernards trained by our own dog trainers). He works as an off-lead Search and Return dog. If he senses something, or someone, who shouldn’t be in a given area he ‘points’ (snout down, right leg up, tail straight). If he sees a motionless human he will ‘approach’ and lick their face and paw their chest. If there is no response he will ‘return’ to me or the nearest team member. He also does his ‘Chief Moral Officer’ bit when the team is tired and the waiting relatives are anxious – a waggy tail and a pat on the head work wonders especially when the Newfs and St Bernard’s want to play.

Five year old Bobby thinks it’s an elaborate game. To him, all missing people are a reliable source of cheese or treats which require his personal attention. Though when he has his ‘uniform’ on he seems to enter a different mode of thinking – I think he knows he’s working at some level. He lives with me at my Cardiff Bay flat. His hobbies are loudly sighing, competitive begging for food and endurance sleeping. And they say dogs turn into their owners..!

Volunteering gives a great sense of satisfaction and achievement. It also gives you a window on Cardiff you would never ordinarily get a chance to look through.

There is of course a darker side to Search and Rescue. The harsh reality is that there are some missing people who you will not reach in time. Some have been missing for so long that exposure will have claimed them. Increasingly people want to take their own lives. No matter what the situation, CAVRA strives to provide some form of closure for the family and loved ones involved. Saving a life is the highest calling a volunteer can be asked to undertake but we always prepare for the worst case scenario.

Previous generations may have called this the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ – but people still come and volunteer when needed and they are often the un-sung heroes. They do it because they care about their community and the people in it. They want to put something back.


David Wills works at the National Assembly in Cardiff Bay where he is jointly employed as a Senior Policy Advisor to the Welsh Conservative’s Policy Director and a Political Aide to the Deputy Presiding Officer and Member for South Wales Central. He was formerly a Social Scientist at Cardiff University and is currently a Member of the Association of Business Psychologists, where his research interests include: Organisational Psychology, Psychological Hardiness, Leadership Profiling, Situational Awareness and the Development of Performance Indicators for Elite Groups such as Endurance Athletes, Specialist Police Units and Special Forces. In his spare time he writes screenplays and books on the theme of Psychological Resilience and Leadership.

Civil Aid Voluntary Rescue Association (CAVRA) are always looking for volunteers. No experience necessary. You provide the time – they provide the training. http://www.cavra.org

David and Bob were photographed on the Cardiff Bay Barrage by Doug Nicholls. To see the rest of the photos from the shoot, see Doug’s We Are Cardiff set on Flickr.


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