Firefighter Training, Firefighting, Hazmat

Disaster Search Dogs Pair with Medics

By Barbara Neighbors Deal

In any disaster, minutes mean the difference between life and death for victims trapped beneath rubble. Disaster search dogs find survivors faster than any other “tool” in the box. First on the scene in times of disaster, medics and firefighters who are also disaster search dog handlers are instrumental in finding victims quickly enough to render life-saving assistance.

Disaster search dogs and their human partners first came to the public’s attention as they located the only human being pulled alive from the 1996 Oklahoma City Bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. But for the past 34 years, since disaster search emerged as a specialty within the greater family of search and rescue dogs, these highly skilled, highly trained teams have responded to hundreds of disasters in which buildings collapsed, trapping humans.

A dog’s scenting ability enables it to find a human trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building. It’s training that teaches the dog to carefully and thoroughly search, at the guidance of the handler, the treacherous concrete, steel, and rebar of a collapsed building. If the building falls in such a way as to create voids, the dog will quickly locate the trapped person, whether conscious or not. The dog stands its ground right at the place it finds the victim and “alerts”-continuously barking, pinpointing the location, and giving the handler time to get to the dog’s side and mark the spot for rescue workers.

The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (NDSDF), based in Ojai, California, trained 13 of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s certified canine search teams deployed to New York City on September 11, 2001. The need is great. There are currently only one-third the number of FEMA-certified canine disaster search teams that are needed in the nation.

The NDSDF rescue dogs receive intensive professional training in disaster search. They are then given free of charge to firefighters or fire departments. The dog and firefighter handler receive rigorous training together until they make FEMA certification and beyond. The dog lives with the firefighter’s family and goes with his handler to the station, ready for deployment.

FEMA Certification
There are two FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Response System tests for disaster search dogs. To be certified as a basic disaster search dog, the dog must demonstrate proficiency in bark alert, direction control, obedience, agility, and successful search for two persons buried in one rubble pile.

  • Bark alert: must bark continuously for 30 seconds and stay at the victim location; two buried victims must be found within 15 minutes.
  • Direction control: must follow directions-far from handler-to go left, right, back, and toward handler.
  • Obedience: must heel on and off the leash and immediate stop when far from the handler, for safety purposes.
  • Agility: must successfully negotiate five out of six obstacles, several of which have moving surfaces.
    In addition, the rubble pile evaluation requires a focused bark indicating live human scent, a good handler interview, and demonstration that the handler can show the exact location of the human scent.

    For the Advanced FEMA Certification test, the dog/handler team searches three separate areas (up to 10,000 square feet each) for a total of six buried or hidden victims. The team has 20 minutes to search each area, plus five minutes for the handler interview. Proficiency in the following areas is evaluated:

    • Briefing
    • Directability
    • Alerting
    • Searching
    • Debriefing
    A little twist of temptation is added to the advanced test: In addition to searching three sites (where the handler does not know if there is one, two, three, or four victims buried in the rubble piles), the dog must find caged live animals (a chicken, rabbit, cat), an open container of food (barbecued ribs or salmon are nearly irresistible), and human-sweat-soaked clothing that are randomly buried. The dog must alert ONLY on the victims-not on the animals, the food, or the clothing.

    Barbara Neighbors Deal was a founding board member of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation and consults with the Foundation on writing projects. She is a literary agent and president of Literary Associates in Ojai, California.