SALINA (KSNT)- When disaster hits and people go missing, search and rescue teams could use an extra hand, or in this case, an extra nose.
Heather Jones, handler and training coordinator, talked enthusiastically about her work over the sound of barking dogs. Behind her, Taryn, a 10-month-old Labrador retriever, was anxious to get to work.
Jones and Taryn are members of the Kansas Search and Rescue Dog Association/Kansas Task Force K-9 Unit, a non-profit organization comprised of volunteers dedicated to the search and rescue of missing persons. The handlers and their K-9s are located across Kansas. They provide highly trained canine search and rescue services to local response agencies across Kansas. They came to Crisis City, Salina, Kansas, to train as part of Kansas’ multi-agency emergency preparedness exercise, Vigilant Guard 2014, hosted by the Kansas National Guard, Aug. 4-7.
Even though they are volunteers, sometimes handlers can put in 20, 30 or even 40 hours a week to train with their dogs.
“We call it our unpaid job,” joked the team members.
Jones and her own dog, a Dutch shepherd named Brock, are both seasoned volunteers. They were called up five times in 2011 alone for real search and rescue missions. At five-years-old, Jones says Brock has already experienced more real-life searches than most dogs will see in a full career lasting 10 to 12 years.
“[The dogs] wouldn’t do it if they didn’t love it,” Jones said. “What we ask them to do is hard and it’s scary. We fly them in helicopters, put them on ropes, all sorts of crazy stuff. I’ve been in buildings that are still partially on fire … it’s scary. They enjoy getting called out, they get excited. Mostly, they do it for a paycheck, which, for all the dogs here today, is a toy.”
Volunteer victim role players in the exercise are instructed to hide with a toy and wait to be found. The dog has to bark 5 – 6 times upon discovery of a victim in order to alert the handler. Then, the dog gets a few minutes of play time as a reward, according to Jones. The dogs stay motivated to search because they are trained to assume that every person on the pile, whether it’s a simulation, a practice or an actual disaster, will have a toy.
As Daisy excitedly combs the pallets for mock victims, Dave Meek, a volunteer dog handler with the Kansas Task Force K-9 Unit, remains perched atop the mound of pallets. Acting as the training exercise safety specialist, he provided oversight of the entire training area.
He emphasized the importance of having someone “to monitor the condition of the area we’re searching with the canines. That person can sometimes see the dog when the handler can’t.”
Meek has been with the organization for more than 20 years helping train dogs to become certified in wilderness and disaster searches. Meek and his newest partner, Wiley, a three-year-old border collie, are working to get certified on collapsed structures by the end of the year.
One of the challenges the volunteer-based organization faces is numbers, Jones acknowledged.
“The hard thing for us is we currently have five operational dogs on our team,” she said. “Hopefully, we will be adding a few more to the ranks here quickly, but there are a gazillion guys who are tech search [certified], so they are bringing in fresh crews constantly. These guys, the dogs, it’s not uncommon for them to work 16-18 hours per day. They are a limited resource.”
Though they only participate in joint-agency training opportunities like Vigilant Guard once or twice a year, the canine unit tries to conduct training exercises at Crisis City every four to six weeks on their own.
Last May, the Kansas Search and Rescue Dog Association/Kansas Task Force K-9 Unit hosted an open training event at Crisis City, which received participation from volunteers and FEMA units from six states. They plan to host another training event incorporating the New York Police Department and several more states in November.
Because training facilities like Crisis City provide a unique, realistic training environment, interest in the facility has been growing, and K-9 units are helping raise awareness.
As far as joint training with National Guard units, Jones said, “we’d like to do more of it. [National Guard] guys are always there and are a great resource for us.”
STORY PROVIDED BY: 1st Lt. Margaret Ziffer/Kansas Army National Guard