COLLEGE STATION, TX – Fourteen Canine Search & Rescue teams from across the United States passed the test to become a FEMA-certified canine team during trials on Oct. 21-22 at the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) Disaster City®.
Fifteen dogs and their handlers traveled to College Station from Florida, Virginia, California, Ohio, Missouri, Washington, Colorado and Massachusetts. Canine teams in the FEMA system are required to recertify at least every three years. For some dogs, this was their initial certification opportunity and for others, this was a recertification.
Texas Task Force 1 Canine Coordinator Christy Bormann says, “This evaluation is similar to when a doctor has to take a Board exam. Texas Task Force 1 is excited to have teams from all over the FEMA system come together to perform this certification. Just being able to get this group of people together in one place to help put new teams into the FEMA system is pretty amazing.”
When the handlers and their dogs arrived at Disaster City®, they were immediately sequestered so they could not see the testing area. The tests are set up to simulate the conditions found at a real disaster.
When it was their turn to test, a volunteer TX-TF1 member escorted the canine team to the testing area. The handler asked the evaluator some basic questions similar to those asked on a true response, such as: “Is the scene safe?” “Do you know if anyone is missing?”
The team was then assigned a search area and allowed to search the rubble pile for 20 minutes. For this evaluation, there could be anywhere from 1-6 victims hidden in a search area. As the dog searched the rubble pile, it would detect scents from the live volunteer “victim” hidden in the rubble and signal to the handler, by barking, that it had found a live person. The handler would then mark the victim’s location and the team would go back to work searching for more trapped people.
After 20 minutes, the team got a 10-15 minute break before they went through a second similar evaluation at a different location in Disaster City®. After the evaluations were completed and certificates were awarded, all of the teams could get one-on-one feedback from their evaluators, some of FEMA’s best canine search and rescue handlers.
This provided valuable feedback to handlers on how they work with their dog and things that they could do to improve their skills for real-life disaster deployments. It also made the experience both a final exam and a good training opportunity.