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We’ve all been there. You’ve had a major fire in a large abandoned building with an unknown number of transients living in it. You know that at least 20 people were in the building when the fire started, but you saw only five come out during firefighting operations. You must check it out – even though it means taking four or five companies out of service for several hours to comb through the building with rakes, shovels and pike poles.
In 2006, when the New Orleans Fire Department’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team was tasked with recovering human remains in the Lower 9th Ward as a result of Hurricane Katrina the previous year, the main search tools were canine search teams from all over the country. When New Orleans firefighters were faced with a post-fire problem similar to the one described above, it was suggested to use one of the canines from the Lower 9th Ward to search the building. That search was accomplished successfully within an hour.
In succeeding months, the fire department developed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with a volunteer canine search group, Louisiana Search and Rescue (LASAR). The MOA states that when requested by the New Orleans Fire Department, LASAR will send canines and establish points of contact. It also delineated the support that the fire department will provide to LASAR during operations. The MOA also outlined how the volunteer organization will be protected should an injury occur to an animal or a handler.
The New Orleans Fire Department used the canines several times over the next year with such positive results that Superintendent of Fire Charles Parent created an internal canine cadaver search team. Basic ground rules were established: handlers buy and feed their own canines, the department pays overtime for handlers to attend four-hour training sessions with LASAR held every Saturday and canines are allowed in engine houses with their handlers.
LASAR proved to be a gold mine in the development of the canine search program. LASAR members are very demanding in their training requirements and operational standards. They offered to integrate the fire department’s handlers into their training program and to provide the department with backup teams until the NOFD had enough teams to handle assignments internally.
The fire department was notified that volunteers were being sought to begin the canine program. Volunteers were invited to an initial briefing conducted by the head of LASAR, Dee Wild, who stated the objectives of the program, outlined the training requirements, and emphasized the extreme time requirements and dedication necessary to produce a top-flight search canine. After the “no-holds barred” briefing, three people volunteered.
The three volunteers began an intense training program, spending four hours every Saturday training with LASAR and conducting a minimum of one hour of training with their dogs every day. The canines were considered department employees and reported for duty in the engine houses just as their handlers did. A set of basic rules were laid down for both canines and firehouse occupants, since this situation had a huge potential for problems. It was critical that the concerns of both sides be considered. Many people are not fond of dogs and some are positively phobic concerning canines. All of these problems had to be addressed.
The author was tasked with establishing a standard operating guideline (SOG) for the canine search team. The Internet provided an outstanding example to follow in the King County, WA, Standards, Policies and Procedures Manual from 2006. Shreveport, LA, Fire Department Chief Kerry Foster also provided assistance with the SOG for the canine search and rescue team he founded for that department. The best elements of both documents were combined and adapted to fit the needs of the New Orleans Fire Department. The final SOG included position descriptions, the responsibilities of those positions, training standards the canines need to meet, documentation requirements when responding to incidents, and ground rules for canine and engine house behavior.