Picture it: a warm and sunny Saturday morning in Maryland, about a half-hour outside of Washington, DC. Blaring bagpipes and snare drum rattles provide an interesting soundtrack; it’s evident you’re in a sea of first responders. Dogs from all over the country have travelled with their handlers to the Montgomery County Public Safety Training Academy to complete the rubble pile portion of the Canine Search Specialist Certification exam.
It’s a pressure-packed situation; each team has successfully completed the first four tests to arrive here and they are one set of simulated searches away from earning their coveted status as a FEMA-certified Canine Search and Rescue team.
That’s when I met Racker, a German shepherd, and his handler from Virginia’s Task Force 1. This isn’t their first trip through the certification exam; teams have to be re-certified every three years to make sure their skills are still sharp and this is Racker’s attempt to renew his certification.
Here’s the first test they faced:
The Limited Access Pile
To make the simulation as realistic as possible, teams start out by giving a situation briefing; giving them a little insight as to what they can expect. This is similar to information they’d receive before performing a real search and rescue operation:
- Is the site safe?
- Have there been any changes since the previous briefing?
- Has a team already searched the site?
Based on this information, handlers then go over their search strategies with the evaluators before sending their canine companion into the area.
Once this is done, teams take their place at the start. Handlers aren’t allowed to enter the site until the dog performs a bark alert: three or more barks in succession. These search dogs alert this way in case they leave the handler’s line of sight.
Here’s another look at Racker in action. This pile is designed to look, feel, and act like debris left behind from high winds of a tornado or heavy water damage from hurricanes’ storm surge. The wood pallets this pile is made of tend to be unstable, very much like conditions of debris left behind by a real disaster. It’s important to note that while areas may be unstable, sites are built so that the dogs are not put in immediate danger.
I had never seen a search and rescue team in action before; in a simulated exercise like this or in a real search. The intensity and focus of the teams during these types of high pressure and high stress situations is really remarkable. I was worried that the sounds of the bagpipes and drums would distract the teams going through the tests, but it’s not unlike some of the other noises that could be going on during a real search—like helicopters or sirens of other emergency response equipment. Teams have to be able to focus on the task at hand, regardless of the environment’s individual challenges—whether it’s changing weather or loud noises.
Before long, Racker gave his alert, which allowed his handler go to the dog’s location to investigate:
There was a potential person among the debris. Racker was rewarded with a toy that’s common among search dogs that I saw go through the exercise—a chew-toy that’s covered with either canvas or leather, depending on the particular style and preference of the dog. Racker’s was covered in red canvas, durable and sturdy. The promise of a reward encourages dogs like Racker to keep searching. After rewarding the dog, the handler would put a flag—generally a piece of flagging tape tied to a washer that can be anchored to the ground or hung on tree branches—to mark where the dog had alerted. When time runs out, the team goes through a debrief with the evaluators explaining what they would suggest should happen next in this area—whether they would send in another team, an infrared camera, or other resources or continue searching elsewhere.
Once they finish going through the littered collection of palettes, Racker and his handler have to complete one final search test before they gain their certification.
The Full Access Pile
The last step for him is the “full access pile,” designed to simulate searching for signs of life after an earthquake strikes:
It’s quite a scene, complete with toppled cars, broken pipes, and leftover concrete structures. After getting another five minute briefing on the situation, site safety, and previous searches that have taken place, they’re ready for the signal to begin.
Here’s a shot of another canine team, this one from Florida Task Force 1 based out of Miami, getting ready for this phase:
Once given the signal, teams have 20 minutes to search, just as they do on the previous pile. These teams are able to stay together and a lead or a leash to go through the area. The dog will still perform a bark alert—three (or more) barks in a row letting the handler and the evaluators know of a potential find.
Upon concluding their search, the handlers do a walking tour of the site, marking where their dogs alerted and any potential and/or confirmed people by creating a map. Teams in real search situations often map out their findings to make sure their team members know what’s in the area, where previous searches have taken place, and what the next steps could and should be. Handlers also debrief the evaluators when they finish creating their map, providing their recommendations based on everything they learned during the search.
There were about 16 dogs that went through the exam that day—day two of a three day set of trials--and a short time after I saw Racker get put through the paces of that exam, I learned that they were one of the search and rescue teams tapped to make the trip to Nepal to help in that response.
So, what did I learn?
Seeing the extraordinary dogs and handlers work towards their certification was an eye opener. It’s the final step to make sure these dogs have the skills they need to be a Canine Search Specialist. The first part of the test that I wrote about earlier this week is just the beginning.
One thing I noticed throughout the day is the different ways that handlers interact with their dogs and how this plays into their approach to performing a search. Some handlers are more reserved, while others get into a mindset where they psych up the dogs and get them excited to go on a search—like it’s a challenge they’re going through together.
One other interesting fact I observed: the number of women who participate as search and rescue specialists. I had thought it would be more of a “boys club,” like how I had always perceived search and rescue in general. I was pleasantly surprised to meet lots of women who serve important roles in this phase of disaster response and who share the same type of enthusiasm for this important work as I do.
Being able to see search and rescue operations—even on an exercise level—first-hand was an incredible experience. The dogs and handlers that train long and hard to perform these searches become crucial to disaster response efforts across the United States and the world. The trust and understanding shared between handlers and their search dogs is visible even to people like me who don’t come from an emergency response background and it’s easy to see how important that can become to a search and rescue operation. This exam puts all of those factors to the test and makes sure teams truly have what it takes.
To wrap up this post, I'd like to share what the whole scene looked like from where I was, with these panoramic photos I took:
In This Series: