A Job that Has Gone to the Dogs

If you are like almost every other American, you have probably spent countless hours in front of the television watching search and rescue missions unfold before your eyes at the sites of various disasters. Search and rescue teams were present to sift through the rubble in New York and Washington, D.C. after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, following major natural disasters such as the 1989 Bay Area earthquake and Hurricane Hugo in 1992, and other lesser known building collapses and weather-related tragedies. At the heart of these missions were search and rescue dogs, led by trained URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE DOG HANDLERS.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sponsors twenty-eight search and rescue squads throughout the nation. These squads are composed of firefighters, medical professionals, emergency managers, and URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE DOG HANDLERS and their canine companions. Each handler is responsible for training his/her own partner, a search and rescue dog. The handler helps to build a dog’s agility skills, so that the animal will be able to physically maneuver in tightly enclosed spaces, in the ruins of collapsed buildings, and in a variety of weather elements.

The URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE DOG HANDLERS must constantly work at maintaining and/or improving their animal’s sensory skills, mainly smell, through numerous exercises and simulations. The handler also trains the dog in barking alert and command control skills, so that the animal can notify rescuers of the precise location of victims and can provide rescuers with an idea of whether or not the victim is still alive. It takes years for the handler to get the dog ready for an actual search and rescue operation. URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE DOG HANDLERS still spend a lot of time refining their animal’s skills even after the dog has been on search and rescue missions.

When an emergency situation warrants, the URBAN SEARCH AND DOG HANDLER will accompany his/her dog and the entire search and rescue team to the location of the disaster. Each search and rescue team has thirty-one positions. Each position must have a back up, which means that a minimum of sixty-two people work on each team. There is rarely much advance notice of such a deployment, so handlers must be able to quickly leave home for indefinite amounts of time. FEMA requires search times to leave within six hours of notification and to be able to sustain themselves at a site for a minimum of seventy-two hours.

After arriving at the disaster site, the handlers meet with the rest of the search team to assess the situation. The team must evaluate what risks are being posed to trapped victims and to the rescuers themselves. Once a site is stabilized, handlers turn their dogs loose into the destruction. If the dog barks to alert that something has been found, the handler will immediately notify the search and rescue team. Then, the handler and other team members will use special equipment or physical maneuvering to remove the victim and get the individual proper medical care. URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE DOG HANDLERS most often work twelve-hour shifts in the time of a disaster. The most experienced and best-tempered dogs can last the entire time, but other dogs may need to be replaced every six hours. Therefore, handlers may often be assigned to two dogs.

Upon completing each shift and the entire search/rescue operation, the handler must spend some time working to maintain his/her animal’s sound psychological state. Animals have emotions and understand the difference between failure and success. They may become aggressive, depressed, or irritable if they experience repeated failure (not locating survivors or victims). URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE DOG HANDLERS must talk to the animal, engage the animal in typical, playful canine activity, and provide opportunities for success. During search and rescue operations at the World Trade Center and the federal building in Oklahoma City, handlers had to periodically have other people hide among the rubble so that their animals could locate “survivors” and feel like they had experienced success.

The most important interest URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE DOG HANDLERS must have a love for canines. Handlers should understand the basics regarding the anatomy and psyche of a dog. Handlers should have a general knowledge of the field of psychology, and how they can apply behavioral theories to training their animals.

Handlers must be in excellent physical condition. They must be able to help their dogs navigate and operate in cramped spaces, on unstable surfaces, and in rain, snow, and extreme temperatures. URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE DOG HANDLERS should be able to carry and/or move heavy equipment and materials in order to assist the team in rescuing victims. Handlers must be able to maintain their energy level and state of alertness for long periods of time.

Any person working on a search and rescue team, handlers included, must be certified as Emergency Medical Technicians. This means that they must be proficient in administering basic first aid. URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE DOG HANDLERS should know how to give CPR, treat burn wounds, splint broken bones, and so forth. The handler should also know how to administer basic medical care to his/her animal

A formal degree is not required to earn a spot on a rescue team as an URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE DOG HANDLER. However, certification in a number of areas is mandatory. Handlers must pass a national certification test in urban search and rescue. This test is composed of both a written and a verbal section that covers search and rescue strategies, briefing and debriefing skills, and canine handling skills.

Once the handler is certified, he/she must then take his/her animal through a test in order to gain certification as a canine/handler team. Dogs are certified when they pass the tests over command control, barking alert, and agility skills. The animals must also be deemed “psychologically and emotionally stable,” meaning that they are not fearful of doing the work and can maintain focus on the job. The canine/handler team gets basic certification when both the handler and animal pass their tests and the animal performs to requests issued directly from the handler. Advanced certification can be earned when the animal performs under the guidance and direction of a third party. The animal must also demonstrate success in an advanced rescue simulation course. It may take years for a team to earn basic certification. Many teams never earn advanced certification, even when they routinely perform well in an actual search and rescue operation. Canine/handler teams must be re-certified every two years.

Also, as mentioned before, the handler must be a certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). There are three levels of EMT certification: basic, intermediate, and advanced. Certification can be obtained at many community and technical colleges.

Most individuals working as URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE DOG HANDLERS hold other jobs. Many of them are employed in related occupations, such as firefighter, police officer, paramedic, and so forth. The bulk of the handlers’ individual annual salaries come from their employment in such positions rather than in search and rescue work.

It is very difficult to obtain a position as an URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE DOG HANDLER. The certification required and the training needed take a lot of time, energy, and skill. FEMA currently only operates 28 search teams. Many of the training programs are only offered when ten or more handlers are interested. Usually, the “training school” is only open every three or more years. However, with the recent attacks on our nation, it is possible that more urban search and rescue teams will be formed. Also, keep in mind that you could work as a dog handler for police department or other organization on a more local basis.

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