Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) involves the location, rescue (extrication), and initial medical stabilization of victims trapped in confined spaces. Structural collapse is most often the cause of victims being unable to escape, but victims may also be trapped in transportation accidents, mines, collapsed trenches and most recently in their own homes and businesses secondary to a hurricane. Urban Search and Rescue is considered a “multi-hazard” discipline, as it may be needed for a variety of emergencies or disasters, including earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons, storms and tornadoes, floods, dam failures, technological accidents, terrorist activities, and hazardous materials releases.
There are many traits and qualities a handler looks for when choosing a canine partner to enter a training program. Of the dogs that appear to be suited to perform this type of work on the average only one out of approximately 200 dogs will successfully complete their training and become certified. Some dogs start their careers as puppies, while others start their training when they are one to two years old. Because of the physical requirements involved in this type of work most disaster canines are retired between eight and ten years of age. Most teams will dedicate 2 to 3 years of training before starting the evaluation process. This investment will total over 2,000 hours of work on rubble piles, debris, construction sites, and building search scenarios. Because the canines are asked to work independent of the handler obedience, direction and control and socialization are additional areas that are included in their training programs.
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Play drive, confidence, and high energy are probably the three desired qualities found in a disaster canine. A dog that will trade their food for a toy has a tremendous advantage in learning to locate trapped or unconscious victims. From the first day of training the canine is conditioned to alert (bark) for a toy reward. Because of the strong bond that is present between the handler and the dog the handler becomes the dog’s first “victim”. In training scenarios the term victim is used to describe the person the dog is asked to find. The handler will show the toy to the dog and run away a short distance upwind. The dog is released and chases the “victim”. Once the victim has been located the dog quickly learns that a few barks will be rewarded with a glorious toy and tons of love and interaction with the victim. It doesn’t take long for the dog to understand that this is really just an elaborate game of hide and seek. As the dog progresses the “victim” becomes anyone dedicated enough to allow themselves to be buried alive by a group of handlers. The new victims are placed in a barrel with a lid. When the dog alerts (barks) at the closed lid the victim appears and play time begins. This behavior will later move on to a rubble pile and the barrel is replaced by a hole for the victim to hide in as the dog searches..
Disaster canines are trained to locate live victims and indicate the position where the strongest scent is found with a focused bark alert. Because of their light weight and agility canines may be asked to search areas that are unsafe or simply not big enough for a human to enter. Once an alert has been given search cameras and electronic listening devices can be used to further pinpoint the location and position of these people. Another advantage the dog has over technology is that once a victim has been identified rescue specialists can initiate extrication and the dogs can continue to work the remaining area. With electronic devices immediate rescue activities would have to be delayed until the entire area was surveyed. A dog’s nose will still work whether a jack hammer is next to a second victim or 100’ away. A dog can also clear an area that is deemed unsafe by structural engineers or firefighters. A common example is when an unsafe area is suspected to contain people that may be trapped or unconscious. To enter that location with electronic devices puts the rescue and search specialists at great risk. Clearing the area with a canine allows crews to concentrate their efforts on victims that are already identified. This allows a better and safer utilization of personnel and resources. Common sense would dictate that a 70 pound dog with their weight distributed over four paws will be less likely to cause a weakened structure to collapse when compared to a number of 200 pound firefighters and their equipment.
Our dogs search for any live or deceased victim. With maturity and continued training a disaster canine can effectively work in a wilderness or non disaster setting such as a lost child in a neighborhood. Disaster dogs are called air scenting dogs. What that means is that they smell or scent the air for any humans in the area. Tracking or trailing dogs, such as Blood Hounds follow the scent of a particular individual that is deposited on the ground as we walk. This is where you would see the “scent article” (clothing, hat, shoes, etc.) given to the dog to identify the lost person’s individual scent. Both tracking/trailing and air scenting dogs can be outstanding assets to authorities responsible for organizing search and rescue activities. .
Arizona Search Dogs is a nonprofit (501c3) organization that trains, certifies, and develops Canine Search Specialist teams to be mobilized with USAR (Urban Search and Rescue) Task Forces and to assist state and local jurisdictions in urban and wilderness search and rescue activities. Our teams have been deployed to the World Trade Center, The Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, flooding in Houston, Texas, Dallas Fort Worth tornado, New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Gustav, Hurricane Ike in the Gulf Coast, Oso Mudslide, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Florence, SR 85 Landfill Search and local searches for Valley residents. Arizona Search Dogs is also a Valley of the Sun United Way supported agency #1761.
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