Firefighting, Technical Rescue



Supported by individuals and foundations throughout the country, the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) sent 31 canine-firefighter disaster search teams to areas hardest hit in and around New Orleans, Louisiana, and Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi, in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The SDF is a not-for-profit, nongovernmental organization based in Ojai, California. The organization offers the dogs at no cost to fire departments and provides ongoing training to the teams and lifetime care for the canines. The job of these teams is to search for people buried alive in the aftermath of natural disasters and terrorist attacks. The dogs are partnered with firefighters and other first responders who are professionally trained to handle the chaos, danger, aand trauma associated with disaster situations.


Mutual-aid agreements between fire departments and Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Task Forces throughout the nation made it possible for local SDF canine teams to aid in the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort.

The teams searched for survivors in wreckage voids where a human being might possibly survive, conducted perimeter searches around designated areas to determine whether rescue workers should check that area, explored partially collapsed structures that couldn’t support the weight of a rescue worker loaded with gear, and investigated houses that were locked up, notifying rescue squads that forcible entry was needed to gain entrance.

Val searches for victims in New Orleans. (Photos courtesy of the Search Dog Foundation.)
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Captain Marc Valentine, a 23-year fire service veteran with the Montebello (CA) Fire Department, was teamed with Val, a Golden Retriever. The pair searched 13 days for survivors in storm-ravaged New Orleans. The heat and humidity were unbearable. The dogs had to be prehydrated before their day began and were continually hydrated and bathed throughout the day. Veterinarians also checked the dogs for hydration and monitored them for and treated any problems (photo 1), such as bruising and sore muscles.

According to Rick Lee of the Sacramento City (CA) Fire Department, teamed with Ana, “The dogs started panting the moment they left their air-conditioned vans to begin their 12-hour days. There was no shade to be found anywhere, even under the trees, since the storm had blown all the leaves away.”

When they needed to rest, rescuers and their dogs sought refuge on the rubble that was once someone’s home. Often, there was no entry into the homes, other than ducking in through windows.

It was a tough climb through the rubble, but the dogs cruised through what the humans had difficulty walking through without slipping. Valentine noted Val’s performance during this deployment, especially his eagerness to search, day after day, from early morning until they returned to base camp at night.

Among the most important things the canines contributed was a sense of normalcy to task force members during an extremely trying situation. “The dogs became stress debriefers, bringing a sense of home to the rescue personnel who came by to pet and play ball with them at the end of a difficult day,” Valentine noted.

Engineer Steve Pendergrass of the Kern County (CA) Fire Department, deployed with his Chocolate Lab, Marc, was amazed at the amount of searching the dogs were able to do. “Marc searched for miles each day, working extraordinary hours, always coming back for more, giving 110 percent,” he said. Members of the task force that accompanied them helped rescue a 74-year-old man who was found unconscious and emaciated. The National Guard team forced entry into the house, where they found the man and a pit bull puppy-both were still alive. The man suffered from dehydration; according to medical personnel, he would only have survived 24 hours more if he hadn’t been discovered. According to Pendergrass, “This rescue served as a tremendous morale booster for everyone involved.”

Temple Terrace (FL) Fire Rescue Driver/Engineer/Paramedic Marshia Hall deployed with her dogs Trapper and Shade as part of Central Florida Task Force 4 on Tuesday, August 30, primarily searching residential subdivisions in Pascagoula, Gautier, and Biloxi, Mississippi. Although she was called out to four other hurricanes last year, she says, “You never get used to this. The look on people’s faces as they realized what had happened deeply affected me.” Because of the dogs’ training and high skill level, Hall said, “We were able to assure the families that none of their surviving loved ones had been left behind.”

Jeff Place of the Fremont (CA) Fire Department and his dog, Zack, were deployed on August 31 to Biloxi-starting at the coast and working their way inland. “We searched 20 square miles of homes and businesses, an area completely destroyed by the storm surge.” The dogs did really well under some very harsh conditions, he said, and although taught to alert only on live finds, Zack reacted each time the team came across the scent of a dead body. In that case, Place said, they would either get a cadaver dog in there to confirm the find or try to retrieve the body themselves (photo 2).

Captain Randy Gross of Sacramento Metro (CA) Fire Department and Dusty in Gulfport, Mississippi.
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Lieutenant Athena Robbins of Bellbrook (OH) Fire/EMS and Gator, along with other Ohio US&R Task Force 1 canines, searched structures and debris piles in Long Beach, Pass Christian, and Gulfport, Mississippi. “The dogs climbed 13- and 14-foot-high rubble piles in searching for possible live victims. Refrigerators and their contents were everywhere but, thanks to their training, not one dog showed interest in the food scattered amid the debris or in the other animals around,” Robbins said. The canines searched 500 structures and debris piles. To keep the dogs on task and happy, team members hid in the rubble so the dogs could find them, and they were rewarded with toys and playtime. Throughout the search, these dogs never missed a beat, according to Robbins.

Teamed with Sherman, Captain Steve Swaney of the El Cajon (CA) Fire Department was deployed to the 9/11 attack site and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. There was no comparison between his experience at the 9/11 site and that of Hurricane Katrina, he said-one was an act of terrorism, the other a natural disaster. “The one constant is that Sherman and I were well-trained, well-equipped, and prepared to respond and help in both of these situations. It is very gratifying to watch Sherman do his job with such skill and professionalism.”


To be ready for any disaster, the teams are constantly in training-twice a week, more than three hours per session, throughout the working life of the dog. The handler and the canine are together 24/7, get to know each other well, and develop an amazing bond (photos 3, 4). “The more preparation we have, the better I can read Val,” Valentine commented. “If a team had to search for my family, I would want the best trained, most experienced team out there. Training has given me greater empathy for the victims. As part of training, I sit in a hole for a few hours, waiting for the dogs to find me. Real victims sometimes endure days of endless, painful waiting. This drives me to continuously train and improve.”

Search dogs in training.
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Realizing the essential need for continuous preparation, Swaney sought out other teams with which to train, sometimes driving hundreds of miles at his own expense, to find those teams and prepare for missions together.

Search dogs in training.
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Swaney also assisted in forming SDF’s annual IRONDOG practicum, five days of training in a simulated disaster setting that brings together canine search teams from around the country to sharpen the skills needed for the nation’s most demanding search and rescue operations. Handlers come together to share the knowledge gained from recent deployments and from their own training programs.

Throughout the IRONDOG Competition, handlers and dogs test their skills against other teams and are challenged to work together with those they’ve never met-as they might during an actual disaster.

Valentine and Swaney value the networking and camaraderie among search teams nationwide, which has expanded their circle of colleagues from a small department to a diverse nationwide group of professionals. Although they may be personally deployed on few missions, they take pride in every team’s mission and every team’s find: “One team wins the search, and we all win.”

KIM McGUIGAN and JUDY FRIEDMAN are volunteers with the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation in Ojai, California.