Our New Home Is The City Dump

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OUR NEW HOME IS THE CITY DUMP

The test was coming. The FEMA Canine SAR Certification test would eventually merge into a single exam, but in 1997, there were two separate tests. Basic certification—two victims across two rubble piles in under fifteen minutes—allowed the qualifier to respond to local disasters. Advanced certification—six victims across three rubble piles in under forty minutes—allowed a team to deploy nationally and internationally.

My goal had always been to help our nation, so none of our teams would settle for only Basic certification. And although the FEMA Advanced certification was needed to respond to disasters, the certifications themselves weren’t the desired end state. We needed teams who were at their best at actual disasters, where stress would be through the roof and there would no doubt be behavioral factors nobody could predict.

THERE WERE OTHER SAR canine groups that wanted to push their teams through as fast as possible. They’d show up with only half-baked training experience. Maybe their dogs would pass, maybe not. To the firefighters, this was unacceptable. They lived by a mantra: at the moment of truth, you will not rise to the level of your expectations, you will fall to the level of your training. Before they even thought about taking the FEMA certification tests, the Three Rs, and thus the SDF, wanted teams that were, without question, ready for deployment. Rick, Rob, and Randy knew they had first-class search dogs. They took it personally that they were the anchors on their team and, to the delight of the dogs, trained like hell to get themselves up to speed.

Ironically, one of the greatest obstacles in their training path was a lack of obstacles. All living in the Sacramento area, the Three Rs could easily coordinate their fire department schedules, and of course the dogs always wanted to work. But you can’t exactly have a rubble pile on standby. There’s no way to just throw together a few tons of collapsed concrete or inflate a pile of twisted steel. For this reason, one area of training we really hadn’t been able to cover was searching on a real rubble pile. All the hours on obstacles and agility courses wouldn’t amount to much if the dogs couldn’t perform on the real course.

The firefighters knew they needed to get out on rubble, so they made it happen. They descended on recycling centers and city dumps and talked attendants into letting them run the dogs over trash piles and lumber stacks. The firefighters would come home happy, but smelling like trash. They befriended demolition crews around the Sacramento area. At first, these crews worried about liability—destroyed buildings are dangerous places, after all—but eventually the crews would end for the day and hand it over to the search teams with one request: “Just make sure we don’t find any bodies here in the morning.”

The dogs ate up the new time on rubble and refined their skills, so the firefighters increased the intensity. They tried everything. Training under time limits. Training cold searches without prior knowledge—one would organize the rubble pile location and the buried victims, and the others would show up last minute and start searching immediately, just like an emergency deployment. Sometimes they wouldn’t even have victims because more often than not, that is what happens in a real disaster. The dogs had to get used to searching and searching with no live finds.

The teams trained at night, in low light with flashlights and chemical glow lights, experimenting with different tools and techniques with the dogs. They brought in a field trials expert to teach them the nuances of retrieval work. They experimented with different reward toys. For Ana and Dusty, the toy of choice was a section of old fire hose that Rick and Randy sewed together stuffed with socks. Harley preferred something softer and fuzzy. Beanie Babies became his favorite, so Rob came to tote pocketfuls of bright and smiley stuffed animals. He had to bear the heckling from the other handlers of course, but if it helped his dog, Rob didn’t care; he would’ve happily juggled the toys while singing falsetto.

The teams came up with new places to test their dogs. They searched the ball pits in funhouses. They even searched the Piedmont jailhouse, abandoned before it was to be demolished, in the dead of night. The jail was underground so it had absolutely no ambient light. Talk about creepy.

The teams approached each training session like they would deploy the next day. When the firefighters spoke of their training, they always held that they needed to conduct each search like it was for a member of their own family. When it came down to it, one day they would be searching for someone’s family member.

The dogs flourished. They loved searching, and now that they had a positive environment, a stable home, and a loving owner, they were thriving. It didn’t take long for the media to catch wind of a group of firefighters who were lingering around demolished buildings with dogs that ran over rubble like saving angels. One evening a news crew joined the firefighters as they searched a freshly demolished mall complex. When the reporter cornered the teams and started asking questions, a normally reticent Rob Cima stepped up to the microphone with Harley by his side.

“We train because we have one shot at this, and you don’t want to miss,” he said. “And these dogs don’t miss.”

It was a philosophy the teams took to heart. If the day came, they would be ready. Rick might just need a few extra pairs of gloves.

GLOVES OR NOT, in May 1997, Rick Lee thought Ana was ready for her FEMA Basic Disaster Canine SAR Certification. She had been training for only seven months, and together with Rick for only four months. Certifying now would be the equivalent of going from peewee league to the pros in less than a year. It was unheard of. Anyone who had not seen Ana search dismissed it as a fantasy. Even those close to the team had their reservations. But Rick trusted Ana. She checked every box on every search without fail.

On the morning of May 18, Rick opened Ana’s crate at a rubble pile of crushed concrete near Sacramento. An ever-tranquil Ana did a few concise stretches and looked to Rick with the electric gleam that let him know she was ready to go to work, and God help any soul that stood in her way. Before them were three elevated platforms, an agility course, and two sprawling rubble piles of concrete slabs, shattered wood, and twisted pipes. Multiple evaluators stood around the course, clipboards ready.

Ana first went through basic obedience commands, a snooze fest for her. Then came a direction and control test, where she would ascend one of the three elevated platforms, wait for a command from Rick, and follow a specified pattern around and to the next platform, about twenty-five yards away. Ana had no problems here either, finishing in just over one minute. Then it was on to the agility course. Ana had to complete four mandatory obstacles—ladder, elevated plank, tunnel, and unstable surface—and then one other handler’s choice obstacle within five minutes, all while staying under control, and obeying any directions by the handler. A cakewalk.

Then it was really show time: the rubble pile search. Ana needed to find two victims buried in multiple rubble piles in under fifteen minutes. Rick led her to the starting point, went through his pre-search checklist, and unleashed Ana.

“Search!” he commanded.

Ana straight-lined toward an alcove on the rubble pile and immediately started her alert bark. The evaluators exchanged glances. She’d found the first victim so fast Rick had tripped and fell trying to keep up with her. Ana continued her bark alert and Rick picked himself up and made his way over to “call” the find—officially confirming for the evaluators that a dog had found a live victim. In a real disaster, this would be where the handler radios for the rescue squad and rewards the dog.

One down, one to go. Rick gave Ana a quick once-over to check for injuries and then loosed her again.

No hesitation or searching patterns. Again, Ana went almost directly to a second spot on the rubble and started her alert bark. Second victim found. The elapsed time was under five minutes. Nobody knew what to make of it because nobody had ever seen anything like it.

Rick and Ana exited the pile. Ana got her tug toy reward and shook it triumphantly, then jumped in a nearby kiddy pool to celebrate. Everyone looked on in a kind of awestruck reverence. This dog was incredible. Rick had heard an earlier comment from a bystander that because Ana was finding victims so fast the evaluators thought she’d cheated somehow.

The vilification of the SDF program hadn’t diminished with our successes. Unfortunately, it had only spread to those working with me. Everyone from the trainers to the firefighters heard the doubts and naysayers at every turn. A large number of so-called professionals didn’t think firefighters should be allowed to be handlers. Rick, Rob, and Randy had to confront such biases at what seemed like every turn. At one training event, Rick was volunteering as a “victim” for other dogs when a pair of civilian judges, unaware he was “buried” beneath them, came over and spent a good few minutes badmouthing the firefighters. At other training events, some evaluators would purposely put extra safety judges on the rubble pile to try to confuse SDF dogs.

But Rick wasn’t worried about gossip. He’d heard all the skepticism before and ignored the whispers. Ana could do it all again in a blink of an eye, and anyone who watched her search would agree, regardless of their bias. She’d completed every task without flaw; the evaluators really had no choice but to certify her. By the end of the day, we got the official word. Ana was certified.

Rick and I knelt and praised Ana, who was still ecstatically floundering in her princess pool. Just one year ago an unadoptable house pet and a rejected assistance dog with no future, this Golden girl was now certified to search out trapped humans anywhere in California. She had exceeded all expectations and defied all the odds. Her success was exceptional and proved our program could work. I still had 167 teams to go to reach my internal goal, but suddenly it didn’t seem like just a fleeting daydream.

Four months later, Dusty and Randy Gross would try for their FEMA Basic certification. Prior to the test, however, there was a problem. Dusty, probably stemming from her troubled past, was ultra-sensitive to the mood around her. As Randy’s anxiousness for the test grew, Dusty sensed the change and grew uneasy. Doubts about the situation began to creep in. Was it something she’d done? When the dogs aren’t searching, they are usually kept in crates. They learn that their crate, wherever it lies, is their safe place. For a dog that always wants to work, it is the symbol that, for now, their work is done and they can relax.

For this reason, I was very strict about crating dogs. But suddenly for Dusty, the tension in the air made the crate too small. Something was wrong and she didn’t know what. Her anxiety begat more anxiety. She wouldn’t lie down. She paced in her crate, mewing and whining, despite Randy’s reassurances. It was a problem. Not only was she getting more upset, she was burning herself out before they’d even started. By the time they hit the rubble pile, she’d already be spent. Randy had to do something. Though totally against my instructions, Randy relied on his instincts with Dusty. He’d been the one putting in hundreds of hours, paw-in-hand with Dusty and knew exactly what his nervous partner needed. He pulled Dusty out of her crate, and sat her in his lap.

Until they were ready to start the test, he spoke soothing words to her and stroked her head. It worked. Dusty calmed and settled back into her trained mindset. When their number was called to search, Dusty was ready. She through the course and achieved her certification. Both she and Ana would receive their FEMA Advanced certifications within the next few months.

Harley, steady and relentless in his searching, would, with Rob Cima, achieve his FEMA Basic certification around the same time Ana and Dusty were testing for Advanced. Compared to his adopted sisters, Harley was a bit slower, but he was almost a full year faster than 99 percent of other search dogs at the time.

When it came time for Harley’s Advanced certification test a few months later, things were going smoothly and Rob was confident with his performance. I watched Harley check off his task list, finding five victims in the pile and giving strong bark alerts. Rob thought that would be it, but then Harley alerted again on a woodpile at the corner of the rubble. Rob knew there could be up to six victims, but saw no way they could hide somebody in a place like that. He didn’t know why Harley was alerting, but thought it was probably nothing. He hesitated to call it because calling a false alert is an automatic failure.

I watched from the sidelines. Harley continued to bark, and Rob continued to hesitate. I felt my blood start to boil. Finally, he did the right thing and called it. Of course, out pops a sixth victim from the woodpile. Harley had passed. Rob, well, he needed a piece of my mind. I approached him—he probably thought I was going to congratulate him—and let him have it. “What the hell were you thinking?” I demanded. “You didn’t trust your dog!”

Rob learned from his mistake, but, more important, Harley was Advanced certified. Three teams had entered the pilot program, three had graduated, and now all three were certified to respond to disasters across the nation. Depending on which data point you consider, we’d reduced training time by almost two-thirds. We’d shaved years off the process and our dogs were top-notch. The SDF was moving. Onward and upward.

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