Dogs head to Washington State to find mudslide victims

Sally Dickinson with Fielder at Vet Check. (Courtesy Battalion Chief Chris Schaff with Urban Search and Rescue)

FAIRFAX — On Thursday morning, three dogs with a grim task ahead of them boarded a plane at Dulles International Airport en route to Seattle, Wash.

The dogs are part of Fairfax County’s Urban Search and Rescue team.

“We were requested by FEMA to send three of our K-9’s to Washington to assist in the recovery of lost personnel up there,” says Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Chris Schaff, with Urban Search and Rescue.

The dogs and their three handlers will help search for 20 people missing after a deadly mudslide March 20 in Oso, Wash.

Once they arrive, the dogs and their handlers will report to FEMA officials.

“The dogs will be dispatched to the field to perform their work,” Schaff says.

For Hugo, a 3-year-old German Shepard, and a Labrador named Bayou, this is their first deployment. But Border Collie Fielder has been on missions before.

“He accompanied us to Kyrgyzstan last year, when we assisted the military with a downed aircraft and locating one of their pilots that was missing,” Schaff says of Fielder.

Fairfax County’s Urban Search and Rescue team is one of 28 teams around the nation sponsored by FEMA and is always on standby, says Schaff.

“Anytime there is a disaster in the nation, all 28 teams start paying attention to what’s taking place there in the event that FEMA does activate us as a resource that they would be using at that site,” Schaff says.

The dogs will work with search crews. Schaff says the handlers will walk the dogs over areas of debris, and they’ll notify their handlers if they find something using “bark alerts”

“Once the dog finds something, it would sit down at that location or start barking at the location,” Schaff says.

The dogs will work long hours, so handlers keep a close eye on them.

“The handlers can watch them and see how they’re reacting, so they can see when the dog’s tired and needs a break,” Schaff said. But he says that this is what the dogs are trained to do and they enjoy doing it.

Schaff says the team prepared for a seven- to 10-day mission, but will work as long as FEMA needs them.

These dogs have to go through a lot of training before being certified as Human Remains (HR) dogs. For most K-9’s, training can last up to two years. Each handler works with two dogs — one an HR dog, the other Live Find dog.

Schaff says the hope of the team is to help “bring closure to the families that have lost somebody.”

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