What was the toughest job interview you ever had? A grueling Q&A session with a panel of people in intimidating suits? Or maybe it involved a test or a simulation? No matter what your toughest job interview experience, I bet you’ll be impressed by the gauntlet of tests to become a certified FEMA canine search and rescue team.
There’s a reason why the dogs and trainers that are part of FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces as Canine Search Specialists are so good at what they do. The standards we have for these teams of searchers are incredibly high, considering the gravity of situations that they often find themselves in.
In order to be able to respond to these highly stressful events, the dog and handler teams are certified every three years through a rigorous exam that consists of five elements.
This certification is the only time the equation one + two + three + four = five. Here’s what I mean: The first four elements add up to, or culminate in, the fifth and final element. Each of the five elements focuses on a set of the skills that all of the Canine Search Specialists must master. Ultimately, teams of handlers and dogs must work together to accomplish the same goal: successfully completing a search.
Test #1: Obedience
Like any team, effective communication is one of the keys to success. Here, effective communication can mean saving lives. The dog must be able to heed and understand commands given by the handler in order to keep it from wandering into areas that could cause injury or harm.
But how do they test the dogs on their obedience? They perform the following tasks during this section of the exam:
- Emergency Stop: Search and rescue canines have to be able to stop on command. Should they be in a dangerous area, this becomes a potentially life-saving skill. In this part, dogs are called to come by their handlers and before reaching their destination, are given a command to stop. Dogs are graded on how long it takes them to stop.
- Heeling: Dogs are also tested on their ability to stay with their handler without a leash or lead—known as “heeling.” The dog has to stay at their handler’s side while walking through a group of five or more people while moving in different directions and at different paces.
- Long Wait: The last piece of this element is the “long wait” section—which is simply a test to see how long a dog can stay within one body length of where it is left while its handler moves out of sight.
Test #2: Bark Alert
Many people have seen law-enforcement canines in action and know they sit or lie-down to show their handlers when they’ve found something. When FEMA Canine Search Specialists perform a search, there are times and places where the dog may be out of the handler’s line of sight—particularly when they’ve picked up on a strong source of scent. Since their handler may not see a sit or lie-down alert, these canines are trained to bark three or four times when they find something.
In this section of the exam:
- This test is designed to make sure the dog can perform an alert correctly. Dogs are given hand signals and voice commands to guide them to a specific location where a victim has been hidden. Once the dog has picked up on the scent, they have to alert for 30 seconds, without being encouraged by their handler.
- Two timekeepers help during the exercise: one keeps track of how long the dog has been in the exercise area, the other makes sure the dog alerts its handler within 30 seconds.
Test #3: Direction & Control
Naturally, dogs and humans have a distinct height difference. This means handlers can often see farther and wider than their canine companions. The direction and control section allows teams to demonstrate they can take advantage of this height difference.
When a handler sees something they want their canine to investigate, they have to be able to clearly communicate directions to guide the dog. Keeping dogs safe in disaster zones is critical, so a handler needs to be able to guide the dog away from any dangerous areas.
Here's what to expect:
- Four elevations will be set up in a diamond, each measuring between 10 to 20 feet tall. They’re set up 25 yards apart from each other.
- Teams have three minutes to complete the exercise.
- They must go to the elevations in order or they have to start over.
- Teams must complete a right, left, go back and recall command and dogs are allowed to sit, stand, or lie down on elevations.
Test #4: Agility
Search and Rescue is dangerous business. There could be dangerous places or objects in a search area. Dogs must be able to move quickly and safely through things like pipes, crumbled walls, and toppled cars in order to complete their search. There are often small spaces and unstable footholds. This is why agility is one of the most important skills these Canine Search Specialists must possess.
- This exercise consists of four obstacles: a ladder, an elevated plank, an unsteady or wobbly surface, and a tunnel.
- Dogs have to navigate the obstacles in order. If they don’t follow the sequence, they have to start over.
- The dog must have the confidence to search without feeling like it’s in a dangerous situation and does not wear a leash or a collar during the exercise.
Test #5: Rubble Pile
The final element: the rubble pile. This is where the teams can truly shine by showing all of the skills they were previously tested in a realistic search environment. In my next post, I’ll go into more details about this because I saw it performed first-hand. But for now, here’s a quick summary.
- Teams are given 20 minutes to search the rubble pile for signs of life.
- The dogs will not wear collars or leashes so they can move freely.
- Handlers can provide direction to search but do not encourage their dogs to alert.
The rubble pile is the final test before teams receive their certification – it’s the ultimate pressure-cooker situation. If you’re impressed with the certification test so far, just wait until you hear my take on the infamous rubble pile in my next post.
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