Canines vital members in operations
By Wes Wade | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
They were instrumental in recent recovery operations at Douglas Lake and Abingdon, Va. These rescuers — Apache, Schatzie and Radimir — are also not typical rescue squad members.
They’re three of the eight canines the Blount County Rescue Squad (BCRS) currently enlists for search, rescue and recovery operations.
As BCRS Deputy Chief Ed Wolff explained, many people either aren’t familiar with the use of dogs in underwater recoveries, or they have certain misconceptions about their use in such operations.
The BCRS is the only squad in East Tennessee — and likely the whole state — with canine members in the squad, Wolff explained. But any other squad or agency can request their use as part of an inter-agency cooperation.
That was the situation at Douglas Lake on Aug. 18, when the BCRS was called to assist in the recovery effort of two missing tubers.
Suzie Ferguson, one of the squad’s handlers, said the BCRS was phoned during the late afternoon of Aug. 17.
Unfortunately, water operations are nearly always recoveries, as BCRS member and handler Art Wolff explained. In recoveries, the canine teams will first confirm or deny the presence of decomposition, he said.
“Just because someone’s believed to have gone underwater doesn’t mean they stayed in the water,” said Art Wolff, who’s also a detective with the Roane County Sheriff’s Office.
If the dogs don’t smell a body, law enforcement can focus their search efforts on other locations, he said.
For the Douglas Lake operation, Suzie Ferguson and her dog Schatzie started with an initial search area of about 40 acres of water. Less than 30 minutes later, they had narrowed it down to an area less than 100 feet by 100 feet, Art Wolff said.
He and his canine Radimir, who’s also trained for search and tracking with the Sheriff’s Office, then followed, using the same procedure.
“I deployed with my canine without having watched what they had done,” Art Wolff said. “If at all possible, we like to have the second dog come in blind so the owner doesn’t have preconceived ideas and inadvertently make a bad call.”
The pair spent a little over 20 minutes on the water constructing a “final response” in the same area where Ferguson and Schatzie had indicated possible decomposition.
Once boats started dragging the area, they encountered a problem: the lines kept snagging on a large tree at the bottom of the lake. About an hour after moving the obstruction, the first body floated to the surface, Art Wolff said. Some 20 to 25 minutes after that, the second body floated up as well, several boat lengths apart from the first body.
“We got an interest (from the dogs) over a certain area that was several boat lengths apart,” Art Wolff said.
It appears that the when the bodies sank, they became tangled up in the tree limbs.
Standard of training
While the squad utilizes various training locations, its main training site is located on the Roane State Community College campus. There the dogs and handlers are able to practice just about every type of rescue or recovery scenario, thanks to approximately 80 acres of wooded areas and nearby urban settings, said Suzie Ferguson, whose husband Roy is also a squad member, along with his canine, Apache.
In addition to the extensive classroom and field training, both the canines and their handlers are trained and certified to national standards, Ed Wolff said.
“We decided early on that all our search and rescue squad members will be nationally certified as national technicians,” Wolff said. “So they’ve been tested in the field, too. The dogs also have to be specially certified in their specialty area ... at a national standard.”
The squad also trains and certifies dogs for wilderness and area rescue, deceased persons — both above or below ground, in addition to underwater — and disaster search operations. In fact, several of the BCRS canines are trained across more than one area, also called “dual-purpose” dogs.
Some of their canines come from other countries, some have been specially bred and others have fallen into their current job after initially starting out on a very different career path.
For example, Schatzie was originally in training to become a leader dog, or seeing eye dog, for the blind. Ed Wolff explained that she turned out to be too high-driven for that line of work.
“So she was ‘career trained’ from leader dog for the blind to a very successful search and rescue career,” he said.
“And she loves her new career,” Ferguson interjected. “She didn’t want to be a leader dog.”
'Seeing is believing'
Ed Wolff said the more people that see the squad’s canines in action, the more popular their use in such search and rescue or recovery operations has become.
Art Wolff said there were few at Douglas Lake familiar with the use of canines in recoveries, especially underwater operations.
“Some haven’t seen them or seen them be successful,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Well how can they find something that’s 40 feet under water, 100 feet under water?’”
But find they do.
On Aug. 25, just one week after the Douglas Lake recovery, three handler/canine groups were asked to assist in the recovery of a helicopter pilot that crashed in South Holston Lake in Abingdon, Va. Divers recovered the pilot’s body in 90-foot deep water within feet of the markers the groups provided, said Ed Wolff. Among those responding included Suzie Ferguson, Art Wolff, Janet Besanceney and, of course, their trusty canines.
Ed Wolff, who’s been involved in search, rescue and recovery with numerous agencies in as many states — and around the world — said they’re convincing other agencies every day of the capabilities canines can offer other rescue squads and law enforcement.
“The executive director (of one organization) started off using search dogs, but always kind of wondered,” he said. “They said ‘I never saw a dog find someone underwater.’ After they watched two dogs indicate in the same spot twice — after the divers had already searched (that area) — we were busy after that. Seeing is believing.”