Va. EMS holds workshop for K-9 search, rescue training
The participants were K-9 rescue handlers from 17 states who came to run their dogs through the facility’s disaster training area
By Jane Harper
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Loud and incessant barking may rattle the nerves of some, but for the folks participating Tuesday in a K9 Disaster Workshop at Virginia Beach Fire and EMS Training Center, it’s what they wanted to hear.
The participants were K-9 rescue handlers from 17 states who came to run their dogs through the facility’s disaster training area, one of only two such centers on the East Coast.
Eric Darling, co-owner of Superfit Canine and the host of the workshop, described the Beach facility as one of the best, a kind of Disney World for those in the search and rescue business.
“This is the second time we’ve done a workshop here,” Darling said. “Most of the handlers don’t have anything like this where they are. That’s why they come to these workshops.”
On one side is a burned four-story building where the dogs spent the morning rappelling down with their handlers. On the other side is the disaster area, littered with crushed cars and large piles of concrete rubble meant to simulate collapsed buildings. It’s there that the dogs go to sniff out targets.
For the handlers, barking is a signal of success. It means the dog has found what it was looking for. In some cases that might be a live person. In others, it’s human remains. The dogs are trained to find one or the other, not both.
For those trained to find live people, volunteers hid in the rubble and waited to be found. Those that seek dead bodies were sent out to find human remains buried in the piles. The remains are real and are obtained through donations, Darling said.
“It’s vital that we have the real thing,” said Su Vodrazka, a K-9 search specialist from Los Angeles County who participated . “There’s no other way to do this.”
Vodrazka’s dog, Riggs, a 5-year-old yellow Labrador, is trained to find human remains. Riggs has found six bodies during her career: one in a mudslide in Washington, four in a burned building in Los Angeles, and a murder victim in Montana whose body was found buried in the suspect’s backyard.
Riggs has never been much of a barker, Vodrazka said. When she zeros in on her target, she puts her nose as close to it as she can and stares at Vodrazka.
The dogs always are rewarded after a find. For some, that might be a treat or a favorite toy. For Riggs, it’s a long game of ball. Riggs shook with excitement when her handler pulled out a favorite orange ball.
“She is super ball crazy,” Vodrazka said.