Technical Rescue: Work Like a Dog

In the fire service, we often use sayings like “maintain a rigid state of flexibility” and “adapt and overcome.” But one idiom we don’t appreciate enough is “work like a dog.” All too often, we mistakenly emulate this phrase to a painful extent instead of taking it literally. Consider the effort involved in the following scenarios.

(1) A disaster search canine must navigate various terrains and footing while working off leash. (Photo by Michael Stephan, Bear Ridge Media.)

(1) A disaster search canine must navigate various terrains and footing while working off leash. (Photo by Michael Stephan, Bear Ridge Media.)

Scenario 1: You are command during the overhaul of a burned-out apartment complex at 3:00 a.m. It was a long, exhausting fire, and the family insists a member didn’t get out. Throughout the night before the fire was discovered, the child was shuffled among friends’ and family members’ units, and now there is debate about in which apartment the child was left. Your crews are exhausted, but an extensive search of the complete structure is needed.

Scenario 2: An Alzheimer’s patient has been missing for more than 24 hours in the sweltering summer heat. Family and friends are pushing to expand the search area. The only reasonable place your department and mutual-aid companies haven’t cleared is the dense forest and rough terrain of the nearby state park and its waterways.

Scenario 3: A real estate investor is having some hard luck. First, he couldn’t collect the rent for any of his properties over the past six months. Now, the properties have mysteriously been catching fire. Investigators on the scene of these vacant structure fires have ruled out accidental causes, but they are unable to find any evidence of intentional firesetting.

Scenario 4: It’s 5:00 a.m. on Black Friday. The mall parking garage, previously filled with cars, now appears to be a war zone with vehicles strewn among the now-collapsed building’s debris. The mall and its unknown occupants suffered a direct strike from a tornado. It is unknown how many people were in the mall and the parking lot and, more importantly, where they are now.

If, while reading these scenarios, you envisioned firefighters working long, arduous hours searching by hand through hazardous environments until they are “dog tired,” you may reinforce the fire service saying, “100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.” All of these scenarios require an intense search strategy, but go to the source of your dog-like work ethic. Consider leveraging detection dogs.

Why You Need Them

Using well-placed, well-trained detection dogs might more quickly resolve the above scenarios. If using visual-driven human resources, these search scenarios may likely require multiple operational periods as survivors are counting their fleeting seconds.

Scenario 1. Consider that a human-remains detection dog is trained to smell what none of us want to see. These dogs do not require firefighters to visually inspect every blackened shape and cognitively ask whether it is a structural element, a possession, or a deceased person. This process is enormously time consuming and physically and emotionally hazardous. A detection dog smelling through the scene can quickly distinguish the smells for a given area based from one downwind location, or it may conduct detailed searching by more specifically smelling individual areas. Additionally, a human-remains canine may not require physical delayering of a scene, which may best preserve evidence during the initial search.

Scenario 2. Adding a detection dog to this scenario offers the same benefits as in scenario 1, with the addition of speed and accessibility. A human-remains or live-search detection dog, its handler, and a safety should be able to physically traverse through the search area exponentially faster than a structural firefighting crew. A quality dog’s downwind sniff should quickly triage acreage in moments, compared to the hours required for visual inspections.

Scenario 3. An accelerant-detection dog’s guidance may quickly expedite any investigation. These canines are trained to sniff out residue an accelerant leaves behind that would be undetectable to humans. Although the dogs do not testify in court, the samples obtained from their alert areas verified by a crime lab often speak for themselves.

Scenario 4. Accessibility, time, and risk minimization are critical elements a detection dog can address. As in previous scenarios, a quality detection dog can sniff out unconscious victims significantly more quickly than technical search teams using cameras. Camera-equipped search teams must safely cross the rubble and select the correct void space to explore. They must visually distinguish the victim from other rubble contents. If a large structure has collapsed, personnel must physically remove the uppermost rubble layer to enable searchers to reach and clear the lower voids. In contrast, some disaster dogs will have the nerve, the strength, and the size to enter voids, permitting them to access multiple incident scene layers without the need for heavy equipment. “Risk a lot to save a lot; risk a little to save a little.” Running a certified air-scenting detection canine through the debris pile before resources are available to shore it can gain incident intelligence without risking more human lives. A disaster dog alert can provide justification to concentrate search crews or commit heavy rescue shoring and operations to specific areas. The weight of the air-scenting dog vs. that of a firefighter places minimal additional stress or compression to an unstable debris pile.

How They Can Help

Air scenting? It’s not a one-dog world. An incident commander (IC) must know what type of dog his incident needs. Dogs can be trained as diversely as the different sizes, shapes, and colors that they come in. Air-scenting, tracking, trailing, scent-specific, and scent-indiscriminant are the most frequently used types of dog searches. Live-find, human-remains, accelerant, drugs, article, and explosives are just a few search specialties that dogs can be trained to detect and alert on. Disaster, wilderness, urban, water, and avalanche are just a few of the environments for which dogs can be certified.

Keep in mind, our law enforcement counterparts often have dogs trained for narcotic detection, apprehension, and detention. However, using a law-enforcement suspect-apprehension dog to help locate a missing child could prove ineffective. Because the dog was not trained for the objective of your search, it may not locate the child or alert if it does, as its conditioned behavior may be to bite your missing child!

A dog is starting an off-leash search under the direction of its handler. (Photo by Aaron Betts.)

(2) A dog is starting an off-leash search under the direction of its handler. (Photo by Aaron Betts.)

Tool selection is critical to incident success. ICs must be able to assess the incident and determine the type and quality of canine resources needed. Canine resources can and should be certified for their specific discipline such as live search, human remains detection, and so on, and for the interface for which they are trained. Dogs trained for specific interfaces, such as wilderness and disaster, are not necessarily interchangeable! Likewise, a land-based live-search canine should not be expected to efficiently assist in locating a drowning victim in a lake.

Having a canine on scene that is not appropriately trained or properly conditioned can be a tremendous liability. Some of the obvious risks include the potential for canine and handler injuries and ailments or detection dogs may bite a member of the public. Largely, the answer to these and other liability issues is to know your resources. Having a positive relationship and clear communications with the handler is essential to knowing the risks, the interventions, and the suitable mitigations for each specific detection dog that you may invite to your scene. Having a familiar working relationship with these handlers and canines before the incident is essential to understanding their needs and liabilities.

Skill Maintenance

Like a thermal imaging camera or extrication equipment, over time, the canine’s detection skills can become dull and require maintenance. ICs must spend downtime orienting themselves to their canine resources and developing appropriate deployment plans. Like firefighters, canines need rest and rehab. The incident scene is not the place to realize your canine is not functioning to the expected standard. This ongoing relationship between ICs and the canine resources that serve the department is essential to ensuring resources deploying to the scene are of a minimum training and performance level.

What the Benefits Are

Department leadership often assumes it cannot afford or support a dog program. Acquiring, training, certifying, and maintaining detection dogs involve a large expense of time and money. Department leadership and ICs may need to explain how the time and efficiency benefits from leveraging high-quality certified canine resources are unrivaled. Similar to the funding debates that occur over capital expenses such as fire apparatus, you must consider the benefits of maintaining a canine unit or having access to detection dog resources. Many individuals and organizations are willing to help.


ERIN McGRUDER is a 15-year volunteer of the fire service and a firefighter/emergency medical technician with the Boone County (MO) Fire Protection District. She is a planning team member with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Missouri Task Force 1 and a canine search specialist for the state of Kansas. McGruder is the curriculum specialist for the University of Missouri Extension Fire and Rescue Training Institute and has a master’s degree in public affairs.

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