A Whole New Ball Game

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, two extended Urban Search and Rescue (USAR)/canine search and recovery operations were conducted in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward. These operations thrust canine teams and non-canine users into close professional quarters for two or more weeks at...


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In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, two extended Urban Search and Rescue (USAR)/canine search and recovery operations were conducted in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward. These operations thrust canine teams and non-canine users into close professional quarters for two or more weeks at a time for about nine months. This article addresses the main canine issues raised by those operations from the viewpoint of the canine-uninformed.

On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 hurricane, causing massive, widespread destruction. Among the areas hardest hit was New Orleans. Although there was much wind-caused structural damage, the major problem was flooding. One of the city's worst damaged areas was the Lower 9th Ward, a residential area 2.3 square miles in area and 5.8 miles in perimeter. It is bordered on the west by the Industrial Canal, a man-made waterway a quarter-mile wide; on the north by the Mississippi River Greater Outlet (MRGO), a man-made waterway a half-mile wide; on the east by St. Bernard Parish (county), a mostly residential community at the border; and on the south by the Mississippi River. The pre-Katrina population was around 4,800 people in 1,500 households.

In the morning, the Industrial Canal was breached twice. During the day, the MRGO breached in several places, causing a destructive wall of water to attack the Lower 9th Ward, leaving it under up to eight feet of water for four weeks. Eighty percent of the city was under water, up to 20 feet high in some places. This water assault caused massive problems, moving some structures violently for several blocks, destroying others, and covering the area with layers of mud and silt two to three feet deep.

Hasty repairs were made to the levee protecting the Lower 9th Ward from the Industrial Canal and efforts were made to pump out the region. This is where things stood on Sept. 24, when Hurricane Rita, a Category 3 storm, ripped into Texas and Louisiana, the eye wall coming ashore in Cameron Parish about 200 miles west of New Orleans. Even though the city was well away from the brunt of the storm, the counter-clockwise rotation of the winds caused a relatively strong storm surge to come into Lake Pontchartrain, which rushed into the Industrial Canal, causing the levee repairs to breach again. Once more, the area was inundated with flood waters.

One of the many responders to this situation was Southeast Louisiana Task Force 1 (SELA TF-1), a regional USAR team that includes responders from Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes. The task force was originally scheduled to go on line in November 2005, but the day before Katrina's arrival, the City of New Orleans, through the New Orleans Fire Department, felt it was necessary to activate an emergency strike team from SELA TF-1. This team, along with many other responders, spent the next few days rescuing thousands of citizens from the flood waters that washed through the city. After two weeks, the team stood down and returned to "normal" duty.

On Oct. 9, the entire SELA TF-1 Task Force was reactivated with the mission to search the Lower 9th Ward for human remains. The Louisiana State Medical Examiner's Office had received a list of 162 missing persons in the Lower 9th Ward. The list came with addresses for the missing persons and it was decided to conduct a general search of the area as well as a "points of interest" search.

The Lower 9th Ward can be divided in half on an east/west line along Claiborne Road. The area north of Claiborne was devastated, with only a few structures left standing and none left untouched by the mud and water that ravaged the area. The area south of Claiborne, except for a few spots, was left in good condition. The SELA TF-1 command element decided to conduct canine, technical and physical searches street by street with emphasis on points of interest such as nursing homes and churches. At that time, the task force had no attached canine team, so canine teams were called in from all over the country through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), an arrangement established by the federal government whereby states put their assets up for availability anywhere in the U.S. and other states in need of those assets can bid on them.

Canines were used as the primary method for searching the devastated areas. Any alert was marked immediately with colored tape, then a second canine was sent in for a confirmation and a technical and/or physical search was conducted to try to confirm the alert. If the alert was made in one of the many muck-filled buildings, a team was called with an excavator to dissect the building in an attempt to find remains. With limited materials available for shoring these structures, an excavator was the only safe means available to search the structures. On Dec. 11, 2005, after 84 days of deployment and 47 victim recoveries, search and recovery operations were terminated due to lack of funds.

On March 2, 2006, the task force was reactivated to conduct a far different style of search in the Lower 9th Ward. The Louisiana Family Assistance Center had produced a list of 236 missing persons, with additional lists coming from New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), the Orleans Parish Coroner and Kenyon International Emergency Services, a private agency that helped search for human remains in the Lower 9th Ward. These lists had to be harmonized and plotted for search. In addition to the missing-persons list, 2,177 houses were slated for demolition and had to be thoroughly searched for human remains before being cleared for demolition.

Initially, the Army Corps of Engineers wanted SELA TF-1 to do a search that paralleled its demolition plan. This plan was random at best and would have had SELA, along with the canine teams, jumping all over the Lower 9th Ward. Knowing this would be impossible to control and coordinate, the command staff made the determination to divide the Lower 9th Ward into 40 grids, each to be searched by two canine teams. Canine teams consisted of one dog and handler, with one or two SELA TF-1 personnel to provide security, forcible entry and cross ventilation as necessary. If at any time a canine alerted, a search team would be dispatched from the task force command post in the Lower 9th Ward to thoroughly search the area and recover any remains found. All search tracks and indications would be marked by GPS and any building demolished by the task force in search of remains would have its picture taken before and after the operation. These 12-hour-a-day searches went on until June, 30, 2006, when all search operations in the Lower 9th Ward ceased. During the operation, 32 canine teams were used, 72 to 80 miles were walked by cadaver dogs and 2,177 houses were searched. Twenty-four victims were recovered because of this effort.

The following canine issues were raised during field operations. Flagging alert points with colored, plastic tape was a temporary, inefficient method that was replaced by using GPS. This was because many volunteers were in the area and would disregard flagged areas. In fact, flagged areas seemed to attract these volunteers and they would start cleaning up the area. It was also determined that one backup alert was insufficient, and all alerts were confirmed by a third canine.

The task force leadership also needed guidance from the canine people to set up a decontamination station properly for the dogs. Canine decontamination was a new concept for SELA TF-1. An acceptable work schedule was difficult to set up. The dogs obviously could not work continuously for a 12-hour day; nor could the humans. A work/rest schedule was agreed upon between SELA TF-1 personnel and the canine team coordinator, a schedule that was flexible, based on the needs and condition of the canine. Veterinarians, or at the very least a vet tech, needed to be on hand every second of every hour that the dogs were actively working.

Several issues were unique to the operation in the Lower 9th Ward. The area had been underwater for over a month; water that held more than 100 bodies. Scent was everywhere, sunk into the all-pervading mud, the wood of the buildings, and anything and everything porous in the Lower 9th Ward. There were other distracters. Almost every residence contained a freezer filled with rotting meat. Many handlers swore that this would not interfere with their dog's capabilities, but for observant task force escort personnel, this didn't seem to be the case. The hot, humid climate was murder on those personnel who lived in the New Orleans area, and was much worse for canines coming in from Maine and other cold climates. Task force logistics personnel found an empty mobile home with a working air conditioner that was set up at the command post as a canine rehab center.

Skills maintenance for the canines was also a problem. The canines often alerted on a small piece tissue hidden at the bottom of two houses smashed together. Finding this tissue, if possible at all, required hours of demolition and search. The canines would also alert on areas where remains laid for days during the first operation. The difficulty arose as to how to reward the dog for a possible successful alert, without rewarding false alerts. It became fairly obvious that some canines figured out "the game" and would bark at any and every pile of rubble.

The solution was two-fold; first, prior to the start of the work day, the canines were taken to a structure where a definite find had occurred and given a chance to get one (or more) successful alerts. Any time the handler felt the dog was losing its edge, the team would return to one of these buildings to reinforce their skills. Second, when an alert was given, the dog would be taken a block or so away from the alert and allowed to come back and alert again on confirmed scent, and only then was it rewarded.

A different set of problems existed for SELA TF-1 command staff. For the first operational period, the task force used an Incident Command System (ICS) that some would say is standard for normal fire department operations. During the second operational period, FEMA sent an ICS team from Virginia to assist in the area of ICS for the two weeks its canines was operating in the field. The improvement in the task force's administration and documentation as it pertained to a canine specific recovery operation was phenomenal. There was a distinct lack of knowledge on the part of SELA TF-1 about the certification process of canine teams. This came painfully to the fore when one of the task force members was almost neutered by a canine who felt his forcible-entry techniques to be a threat. When the handler was investigated, it was found that most of the certificates that certified her and her canine were of the online-ICS type. A national standard must be found that certifies canine teams. Many agencies can assist in this endeavor, including the National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and others. A canine coordinator must be attached to ICS in the command post; someone who speaks and understands canine issues and who can assist in the coordination of field operations and comfortably handle canine financial affairs.

If your USAR team has not trained with canines, if your team does not understand canine operations or should you find yourself thrust into a canine-heavy operation, you will find yourself addressing many of these issues. It is the hope of the authors that this article will lead you to learn from our mistakes. The best advice we can give is to latch on to a good canine team and work with them whenever possible. Listen to our colleagues in the canine world when they try to explain their special issues and always strive to establish a strong working relationship with your canine folks.

RUEL DOUVILLIERis a captain in the New Orleans, LA, Fire Department, where he has served for 12 years, mostly with technical rescue squads. He is the department's special operations training coordinator and the task force leader of Southeast Louisiana Task Force 1 (SELA TF-1), a Type III urban search and rescue (USAR) team. Douvillier served for 20 years in the U.S. Army as a medic, infantryman and paratrooper and five years as a paramedic with New Orleans Emergency Medical Services. GARY P. SIMON Jr. served for 22 years in the New Orleans Fire Department, with 10 years' service in the Central Business District, 10 years on the Aircraft Rescue Firefighting Team and two years on the Hazardous Materials Unit (Tactical Assessment & Control Team). He also was planning section chief with SELA TF-1. Simon is attached to the Gulf States Dive and Rescue Team as a swiftwater rescue technician/instructor with certificates in public safety diver, advanced open-water diver, and basic life support instructor. He is the senior fire protection specialist for DynMcDermott Petroleum Operations Co., the operations and maintenance contractor for the Department of Energy Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Simon has an associate's degree in fire protection technology and is certified as a Firefighter I, II and III, Fire Service Instructor I and II, Emergency Medical Technician-Intermediate, Aircraft Rescue Firefighter Instructor, Hazmat Technician Level, Hazmat Advanced Technician Procedures, Chemistry of Hazardous Materials Module 1A and 1B, USAR-Rescue Specialist, Confined-Space Rescue, High-Angle Rope Rescue Operations, Terrorist Aftermath Rescue Training (TART), Task Force Leader/USAR-FEMA, Rope Rescue Technician-ROCO, and Fire Service Inspector I and II.

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