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Four-legged team members critical in disaster deployment

Five Task Forces, including search dogs and their handlers, have been activated for Hurricane Ian and deployed in or around Florida


The group of Canines from Both MD-TF1 and NE-TF1 for Hurricane Fiona.

Photo/Nebraska Task Force One

As the continental U.S. braces for a potential direct hit this week from Hurricane Ian, the first to directly impact the East Coast since July, FEMA’s 28 Urban Search and Rescue Teams are ready to assist.

Perhaps, some of the most critical team members, the four-legged, loyal canines and their handlers, volunteer to assist in deployments and respond to national disasters from weather, terrorist attacks and other instances where their specialist skills may be needed.

Two of these teams have been operating in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. The storm roared onshore in Puerto Rico last week, leaving a swath of destruction, flooding and landslides from the torrential rain. FEMA deployed Urban Search and Rescue teams from Maryland and Nebraska. Each Task Force is a 35-member, Type 3 team consisting of trained specialty rescue technicians, paramedics, EMTs, firefighters, physicians and critical four-legged members, the canines and their handlers.

I spoke with Battalion Chief of Search and Rescue and Program Manager for the Nebraska Task Force 1, Brad Thavenet, about their recent response.

“Our teams were activated on Sunday, September 18, and prepared through the night, flying out Monday morning and arriving in the afternoon,” Brad Thavenet said regarding their most recent response to Hurricane Fiona. He added that with this deployment, his Task Force had two canines and handlers. He added that the final team member returned home Monday, after spending seven days on the island.

“Geographically, we are positioned to go in all directions,” Thavenet said.

He added his team is well aware of the challenges hurricane season presents and has done quick turnarounds for deployments in the past.

Once the equipment was back, early Sunday, the Task Force members restocked so they were in a 100% state of readiness if needed.

“Currently, five Task Forces have been activated for (Hurricane Ian) and deployed in or around Florida. They are inbound or already on the ground in Alabama or Florida,” Thavenet said.

Canine handling and safety measures

The canine handlers are comprised of civilians, firefighters and police department members. The certified breeds include Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Border Collies and Golden Retrievers. These dogs are described as high “toy drive” animals. Training these loyal companions – many, family pets – takes a great deal of time, dedication and effort.

“Our team has 11 canines and 9 handlers,” Thavenet said. “They are a combination of firefighters and civilian handlers.” Thavenet said that his teams always deploy with a minimum of two dogs with a Type 3 Team and 4 dogs with a Type 1 Team.

Urban search and rescue teams use canines because of their incredible sense of smell to detect human scent, even from individuals buried deep in rubble. The dogs and their handlers are tasked with searching for live and trapped victims during disasters.

The dogs and their handlers work long hours training and in the hot zone of an incident. The canine responders see the task as a game and become unmotivated if they are unsuccessful in locating victims, so to keep them engaged, one of the Task Force members will hide in the rubble, allowing the dogs to find them. After they locate a victim, the dog is given a treat and played with as a reward, keeping them interested in the mission at hand.

When they are active in hot zones, the dogs do not wear collars or vests that could potentially snag or catch, causing injury or entangling the dog in the rubble and debris. In some instances, booties may be used in areas where traction is not a primary safety concern. On large, unstable debris piles, dogs typically do not wear booties because they need to be able to splay their paws to obtain maximum traction and maintain balance. The medical unit maintains supplies for the canine rescuers in the event they become injured.

Nebraska’s task force deployment history

Nebraska’s Task Force 1, the first team on the ground in Puerto Rico, was established in 1993 with the Lincoln Fire and Rescue Department as the sponsoring agency. Their US&R is a multi-hazard discipline team, as it may be needed for a variety of emergencies including earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, floods and dam failures. Additionally, the teams respond to technological accidents, terrorist activities, structural collapses and hazardous materials incidents. This deployment to the island is not the first for the team.

Since the program’s inception, they have responded to over 30 incidents including 11 Type 1 (full team) deployments with all 80 members and five Type 3 (half team) deployments of 42 members. The team also provides smaller groups of support personnel when needed. Some of the incidents and locations the Nebraska Task Force has deployed include:

  • Hurricane Dorian, Puerto Rico in 2019
  • Oklahoma tornadoes, Moore, Oklahoma, in 2019
  • Nebraska Flooding, Columbus, Nebraska
  • Hurricane Lane, Oliva and Florence, Hawaii and North Carolina in 2018
  • Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico in 2017
  • Building collapse, Omaha, Nebraska
  • Colorado flooding, Boulder, Colorado, in 2013
  • Presidential Inauguration, Washington, D.C.
  • Hurricane Katrina, Gulfport, Mississippi; and New Orleans in August 2005
  • The Columbia space shuttle crash, Houston in February 2003
  • 2002 Winter Olympics, Salt Lake City in the winter of 2002
  • September 11 terrorist attacks, Washington, D.C.; and New York City in 2001
  • Debruce Grain elevator explosion, Wichita, Kansas, in 1998
  • Atlanta Olympics, Atlanta in the summer of 1996
  • Murrah Federal Building bombing, Oklahoma City in 1995

Canine incident scene tasks describes specific job descriptions for the canine responders:

  • Canine search teams are trained to work and detect in any environment and are not limited by noise, equipment or distractions.
  • Due to their heightened sense of smell, dogs can detect live human scent, even if a survivor is buried deep in the rubble.
  • The canine teams specialize in two key areas: detecting survivors (live find search) and detecting people who are deceased (human remains detection).
  • Each canine has a trained handler.
  • At least four canine search teams deploy with each 70-member, Type 1 US&R task force.
  • As of March 2020, there were 284 canine search and rescue teams that specialize in searching for survivors and 90 teams that specialize in searching for human remains.


Read more:

On the ground in Puerto Rico with Maryland’s Task Force 1

What to expect as task forces deploy to hurricane ravaged areas

Todd Bowman is a nationally registered and flight paramedic with more than 18 years of prehospital experience in Maryland. He attended Hagerstown Community College for his paramedic education and later obtained his bachelor’s degree in journalism from Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. His experience ranges from rural, metro and aviation-based EMS. He is an experienced EMS manager, public information officer and instructor. Follow him on social media at @_toddbowman.