The best search and rescue workers have stamina, a phenomenal sense of smell, and sharp hearing - they usually also have four legs.
Highly trained dogs and their handlers can offer the best chance of survival to people buried in the rubble of an urban search and rescue (USR) site, where there are often no outward signs of life.
Intelligence and a remarkable nose make dogs ideal for the job, according to Ann Christensen, Canine Committee Chair at the US-based National Association for Search and Rescue. Most dogs have better vision than humans, particularly in the dark, and more acute hearing. But it is their sense of smell - said to be a thousand times more sensitive than that of people - that really sets them apart.
Popular breeds are German Shepherds, Border Collies and Golden or Labrador retrievers, with trainers looking for a specific combination of talents. "There are only a few dogs can do this type of work, that have the right stuff. The average family pet can't do this, no matter what training you give them," Christensen told IRIN.
Disaster sites are usually extremely dangerous and stressful, so "a disaster dog has to be confident, courageous and agile"; it must be able to focus while sniffing through the wreckage and ignore all other scents and noises, no matter how tempting.
"It takes a minimum of around 18 months to two and a half years to train a ... team [consisting of a dog and handler]. Normally, if you have a dog that has the ability, the drive, the focus to carry out the job, it actually takes longer to train the handler," said Chris Pritchard, Coordinator for USR Dog Teams at the International Search and Rescue Team of the United Kingdom Fire and Rescue Service.
Handlers are an integral part of the dog's training and by the end of it, if the chemistry is right, they are partnered for the duration of the dog's working life - about 10 years.
"When a handler certifies with a dog, they certify as a team and they work together. You develop a very strong bond with the dog because you spend a lot of time training with the dog, travelling with the dog, going on missions with the dog – you spend almost more time with your dog than you do with your family," said Christensen.
According to Wolfgang Zörner, president of the International Rescue Dog Organisation, the global umbrella body that ensures members comply with the standards set by the UN International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), international teams must pass a mission readiness test to qualify for deployment.
"Once you pass, the certification is valid for three years, but the test is very hard - it goes on continuously day and night for two days, and not more than 40 percent pass," he commented.
Canine-handler teams need to be completely self-sufficient for up to 10 days after deployment. That means they arrive on site with tents, food, medical and veterinary equipment or water. The dogs need at least one litre per day - more in hotter climates - to maintain workable levels of hydration. Appropriate kennelling is also important to keep the dogs secure on site.
Besides their leash and collar, equipment can range from lifting harnesses and cooling jackets to dog boots. "You want to protect the dog so that it can do its job - they are as important as the rescuers," said the UK's Pritchard.
In every catastrophe there are always some miracles, and some people survive longer, but normally a person cannot stay alive without water for more than four days
The first 24 hours after a disaster has struck is the "golden day", Pritchard commented. "The ability of the individuals that may be trapped to survive starts to decrease dramatically after that."
Zörner noted that "every disaster is different, but the main objective is to be on site as soon as possible. In every catastrophe there are always some miracles, and some people survive longer, but normally a person cannot stay alive without water for more than four days."
His last mission was the Padang earthquake in Indonesia. "When the call comes in we can be ready to deploy with the dogs within eight hours," he said. Typically, a call will come through the INSARAG Virtual On Site Operations Coordination Centre (OSOCC) – an online information exchange and coordination tool for disaster managers and international response organisations.
The canine-handler teams become part of a larger group of USR specialists. Once medical checks are passed, teams are briefed, equipment is checked and palletised for transportation, and the team heads off, either on civilian or military aircraft.
On arrival the teams report to the OSOCC, usually set up by INSARAG in cooperation with the local emergency management authority. "The problem on the spot is always transportation. To get from the airport to the [OSOCC] and then to the sites," said Zörner.
Given the limited time and resources, initial reconnaissance to identify priority areas is essential. "It is important that they [OSOCC] already know where it is useful to search with dogs; that they have conducted an initial assessment," he noted.
Photo: Phuong Tran/IRIN
|A dog and handler team on the job in Haiti|
The dogs are one part of the "technical search element", the others are highly sensitive acoustic equipment that can pick up minute sounds, and tiny cameras that can be manoeuvred through tiny cracks or holes drilled in concrete.
"It's a big game of hide and seek - that's the only reason the dogs go out and find. If the dog locates a scent source it will demonstrate that by either scratching, or through a focused bark, and will continuously bark at that point where the scent is most strong," said Pritchard.
"But that does not necessarily mean that the person is buried right under them - the scent can travel a considerable distance. We then work the dog at different angles to see if the scent is coming out somewhere else." A second dog is often brought in to verify a find.
The dogs are used in more than one phase of the rescue operation. "Once rubble is removed from an area and dogs can get closer, that may open a scent channel and allow the dogs to pick up on the scent of a person that is trapped. We recommit dogs to the building as we remove large pieces of rubble," Prichard said.
"They recognize a human scent picture made up of many different scents - like the clothing that people wear ... the food that they ate, the polish of their shoes, sweat glands." It is generally understood that they also home in on skin rafts – scented skin cells that drop off human beings at a rate of 40,000 a minute.
Once a find is confirmed, the dogs are removed so that the victim can safely be taken out. Because searching is essentially a game, a find is always rewarded – usually with a toy – to ensure the dogs remain motivated.
Zörner said a dog worked for 20 minutes, because "If it works too long the dog loses interest and the work is no longer secure – he can give an indication even when it is not absolutely sure," and then rested for the same amount of time.
"We search only for live people - that is the priority." When the search is called off - usually 10 days after the disaster began - the dog-handler teams are sent home.
Then, as the humanitarian phase of the relief operation intensifies, another specialist sniffer dog - the cadaver dog - is brought in to search for the dead.