The “Search” in Urban Search and Rescue

Lt. Michael Daley focuses on a USAR team's search specialist and how team canines and specialized tools are combined to complete their tasks.

A Type I Certification for a canine requires the Type II canine unit to search two different rubble piles: one with limited access and one with full accessibility. The canine unit is limited to 20 minutes of operational time and every victim must be found, with the exception of one missing victim. Here is the catch: the canine unit does not know how many victims are in the pile. Additional distractions may be put into the pile by examiners, such as food, clothing and deceased animals. Type II canines must recertify every two years and Type I canines every three years.


During the Operation

The initial concerns when working on the pile are ensuring the safety of everyone, including canines. Hazardous Materials Specialists check the atmosphere around and on the pile before search personnel scour the area for victims and signs of potential survivors. This is of paramount importance; there are no effective means of respiratory protection for the canine, and the handler may have to opt out of breathing apparatus and respirators, as they will be giving instructions for the canines to follow. It is also important to limit the amount of personnel in the area to be searched by the canine unit. Rescuers standing near a potential “victim” leave their scent there, masking the scent of the victim. Once the area is confirmed for further search, Technical Search Specialists enter with cameras and listening devices to comb the “hot” area for positive confirmation of victim locations.

Once the canine unit leaves the pile, it may be necessary to decontaminate the canine of any materials from the area. To do this, many handlers use a heavily diluted mixture of detergent and water, and keep an ample supply of eye drops on hand to keep the canines clean. Should the canines need further medical attention, search personnel seek out local avenues of emergency medical facilities for the animals before a crisis occurs.

Consider the following: many times while operating on the pile, tools may break or fail during the operation. When this happens, most USAR teams have ample supplies of tools and equipment or trained staff to make necessary adjustments to get the tools running again. The support of the canine unit is not so simple; many times, the needs of the animals are taken care of by the handlers themselves. In many instances, travel time for additional training for certification, food, veterinarian support or other needs of the canines are borne by the handlers, for the most part. This team is more than just another resource in the USAR arsenal; it’s a bond that becomes part of the family for both the handler and the canine.



The search component provides a critical support function to team efficiency in the field of urban search and rescue. Plotting and mapping, pinpointing potential victim locations and a blend of canine and human skills that make up the canine unit lead the charge toward victim recovery and removal.

Each resource carries a tremendous amount of technical capability and expertise, and there must be an avenue of support to keep both the technical and personal potential of the USAR team focused and driven. Someone may depend on it.

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A special thanks to Alice Holmes, K-9 search coordinator for New Jersey Task Force 1, for her contributions to this article. Additionally, congratulations to her and her dog “Ranger” for their recent certification as a Type I canine unit.