Drive, commitment, energy and focus are traits integral to being a successful LAFD firefighter. However, they are also essential attributes in a search and rescue dog.
Training a search dog to complete the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) certification process generally takes about one year, equating to over 800 hours of training. The handler and the canine must both learn their roles and develop the skills necessary to become a proficient and professional search team, ready to serve when called.
For the two Human Remains Detection (HRD) K9 teams serving the LAFD, the call came on the morning of June 14, 2016. Firefighter Margaret Stewart and her partner, K9 Veya, and Mr. Jeffrey Neu and K9 Faith were dispatched to search the scene of a fatality fire in a vacant office building in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Due to the size of the structure and the complexities involved in a HRD search, an additional team from FEMA California Task Force 5, Ms. Su Vodrazka and K9 Riggs, was asked to join in the task.
When it comes to locating victims, search dogs are capable of doing the work of 50 first responders. The dogs are able to discern scents unnoticeable by humans and they can do it while jumping, crawling and running across a debris pile. Efficiency and effectiveness are what these dogs bring to a search and rescue operation.
K9 Veya and K9 Riggs both began their work while K9 Faith, the rookie of the group, awaited her turn. Approximately 35 minutes into the search, K9 Veya made her way into a part of the building heavily impacted by a roof collapse. Her body language changed, her intensity increased, and she provided her trained alert, a sit, indicating she detected the scent she is trained to locate – human remains. FEMA standards call for a second search dog (when available) and K9 Riggs was deployed to the same area and independently provided an identical alert. Upon the removal of approximately one foot of debris, the tragic discovery was visually confirmed. Ultimately, the removal of all debris revealed the extent of the loss, four deceased victims.
Balancing the emotions of facing such a tragedy while also being proud of the success of their search dog is the reality of being a HRD K9 handler. The complete devotion required to bring a canine to this level of competency is not understood by many. These handlers are not paid as canine handlers – they are volunteers on a FEMA Task Force. Firefighter Stewart and Mr. Neu personally purchase, train and maintain their canines and they choose to make them available as a resource to the Los Angeles Fire Department. That Tuesday morning, the value of these canines was brought to full light. Their work allowed the LAFD to provide notification and answers to the victims’ families.
Despite their success, the training never stops for K9s Veya, Riggs and Faith. In fact, that very weekend all three attended a seminar where they continued to build on their experience and abilities to problem solve a difficult search scenario. If you are interested in supporting the work of these teams, please consider visiting www.supportlafd.org and specify your gift for the Canine Team.
K9 working in debris: K9 Veya
K9s pictured left to right: Riggs, Faith, Veya