Canines seek FEMA search-and-rescue certification

Sunday, October 21, 2007 | 9:38 p.m. CDT; updated 1:05 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Elaine Sawtell, from Springfield, Mo., works through the rubble with her dog, Kachi, during the first of two twenty-minute tests for canine certification with the Federal Emergency Management Association disaster search and rescue Sunday. Sawtell, who works with the Nebraska Task Force, is one of the most experienced handlers in the country. Twenty-four handler and dog teams came from all over the country for the evaluation in Columbia.

For months, Adam Skiver had this past weekend in Columbia planned out. Homecoming had nothing to do with it, though. He and his excitable 3-year-old black Labrador, DeSoto, flew in from Arizona to climb all over huge piles of debris.

Skiver and DeSoto were one of 24 teams that participated in an urban search and rescue test over the weekend at the Boone County Fire Protection District’s training center in north Columbia. The Federal Emergency Management Agency-sponsored test was the first of its kind held at the Fire Protection District.


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The test was deceptively simple. Each team had 20 minutes to search two piles, looking for anywhere between two to seven “victims,” who were fire district personnel hiding in the rubble. Using a combination of hand signals, whistles and voice commands, handlers directed their dogs where to go. If the team found all the victims in the time limit without a false alarm bark, it passed and received certification to work on search-and-rescue missions.

“Everything depends on passing this test,” said Debra Tosh, who oversaw the tests on behalf of FEMA. “If you don’t pass, then you’re not deployable.”

FEMA sponsors 12 such tests each year, and teams must be certified every three years.

“This is very hard,” said Kurt Doolady, training coordinator for Missouri Task Force 1. “It’s fairly stressful for the animal and the handler.”

Teams traveled from across the country for the event, though there was no local dogs participating. Missouri Task Force 1 has a handful of certified teams and several other aspirants, but none could test this weekend.

“This is where they train,” Fire Chief Steve Paulsell said, adding that a familiar area would give the fire district’s dogs an unfair advantage.

Paulsell said that the test had been planned for about nine months and that the fire district used a $25,000 FEMA grant to pay for the evaluators’ travel, lodging and meals.

Doolady designed the 15,000-square-foot piles, with the help of some heavy equipment. Among other items, the piles contained a rusty metal beam, multiple large chunks of concrete and a school bus that had seen better days.

As he waited in a room in the training center where teams were sequestered before the test, Skiver, part of Arizona Task Force 1 in Phoenix, said he was nervous because of the pressure from fellow teams and from his task force. He also acknowledged the countless hours he and DeSoto have trained together.

But, he said, he really only had one thing on his mind Saturday.

“Hopefully my dog can find those people in the piles,” Skiver said, laughing. “I just tell him to go search and let him do the work.”

His dog, DeSoto, took it in stride. First, when he reached the pile, he memorized the scents of all of the people he could see. He then started to sniff for an unfamiliar human scent and find the spot where it was strongest. Skiver then marked the spot with a flag and the pair moved on.

This weekend’s 20-mph and up wind gusts played havoc with the source of scents the dogs were seeking, but Doolady said weather is just part of the test.

“The breeze is making it a little more difficult, but this is real world,” he said.

Chantal Rose, from California Task Force 3, pulled out of the test after only a few minutes on the limited-access pile, where Rose had to stand still while her dog, Quarry, combed the rocks.

“My dog was not ranging at all,” Rose said. “She kept turning back and coming toward me. I just said, ‘My dog’s not working.’”

Rose said she would continue working with Quarry, a 2-year-old German shepherd, by experimenting with a different reward system or having the dog complete short, easy tasks. She she said she would attempt the test again in six months.

“I’m not throwing in the towel just yet,” she said. “You’ve put so much heart and soul into your dog.”

Tim Odebralski, a member of California Task Force 6, brought his 3-year-old golden retriever, Chili, from Riverside, Calif.

“It’s like a big game for them,” Odebralski said. “They don’t know they’re going to search for people.”

Results for Skiver and Odebralski were not available Sunday evening, though 17 of the 24 teams passed.

Saturday morning, Tosh said she would’ve been happy with a passing rate over 50 percent.

Doolady said his favorite part of the weekend was simply watching the skill and training involved in the search and rescue tests.

“It’s really neat just to watch these dogs work,” Doolady said. “It’s really incredible.”

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