So Others May Live

Josh and Edgar
Josh and Edgar
Josh Gerstman, one of King County Search Dogs' (KCSD) operations leader, and his first search and rescue partner, Edgar, participated in hundreds of searches from the time they first certified in 1999 until Edgar's retirement in 2010. It is this bond Gerstman shares with Edgar, which Gerstman treasures most in his experience in search and rescue. | Photo: Archives | Link | Josh, Edgar, Dog, King County Search Dogs,

The trail of a search and rescue dog

"After hearing voices pleading for help, rescuers were conducting an overnight search for survivors from a massive mudslide in Washington state," opens the coverage from the Associated Press, via KOMO news, the Seattle affiliate to ABC, of the March 22, 2014 mudslide, which completely covered State Route 530, near the town of Oso, approximately 55 miles north of Seattle, devastating the small community, in Snohomish county. The mudslide was at least 135 feet wide and 180 feet deep. In efforts to search for live victims, search and rescue teams, dogs specifically trained in searching for human scents and their handlers, were deployed. As the Associated Press continues, via ABC news, "The canine heroes and their human companions [had] been trudging through the deep mud and [had] been working in grueling condition that [had] been exacerbated by cold and rain," working tirelessly to find victims. However, search and rescue teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, with the mission to support citizens and first responders to build, sustain, and improve our nation's capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards), were deployed to relieve the local canines, as they got some rest to recover from exhaustion.

Search and rescue dogs come to the forefront when natural disasters occur, in hopes of finding live victims, or unfortunately, recovering the lives that were lost. However, these hero dogs search for, and rescue, missing people every day, whether searching for a lost skier trapped in an avalanche, or a person who wandered away from his residence.

To Josh Gerstman, one of King County Search Dogs' (KCSD) operations leader, search and rescue (SAR) volunteers "embrace the ideal, 'so others may live,'" fortunate to be among the band of volunteers who have the time, resources and ability to dedicate training and be in position to respond when the call goes out." KCSD units, with the mission to find and rescue people in distress and assist law enforcement agencies with evidence searches, are deployed by King County of Washington State, by the King County's Sheriff's office, as well as requested for Washington State missions via contact through the State Emergency Management Division. KCSD provides several search services, including: air scent, trailing, evidence search, cadaver, water search, and avalanche.

Gerstman explains, search and rescue is a team activity. "As a dog handler responding to a call for a missing person, my dog and I are a part of a group of responding volunteers." At times, it may be a handful of individuals; other times, it may be hundreds from a number of search and rescue units, which include 4x4, mountain rescue, explorer search and rescue (ESAR), horse units, and incident support. The universality in search and rescue: all the volunteers, as dog handlers, have dedicated hundreds of hours each year to training with their dogs, among the energy in responding to a search and rescue mission. Each team must be certified, after taking classes, undergoing a standard training regimen to meet standards (generally stipulated by the county), to demonstrate the team is proficient, and able to efficiently contribute to the search. Members of the KCSD unit have numerous roles; Gerstman is a dog handler, training coordinator, and one of the six operations leaders.
Most working and sporting dogs have a great aptitude for search and rescue, as KCSD's unit has a variety of breeds, including Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Border Collies, Doberman Pincher, Duck Tolling Retriever, Belgian Tervern, even had an Australian Cattle Dog, as well as assorted other herding and retrievers. KCSD prefer dogs to be mid-sized, approximately 30-80 pounds, "big enough to get up and over downed trees and boulder fields'" but also small enough that they can be picked up or carried. Gerstman's current canine partner, Natick, a chocolate Labrador, is a certified wilderness air scent search dog; Gerstman and Natick will begin more advance training in the upcoming months.

Search and Rescue Teams
According to KCSD, each team trains in a primary area, in one of two disciples: air scent or tracking/trailing. Air scent dogs are trained to locate any person in a specific area. As Gerstman explains, air scent teams work off-leash, where the dogs are trained to have their noses in the air, detecting any human scent, focusing on where the scent is strongest. If the dog hones in and finds a live individual, he or she returns to the handler, performs a trained indication, and leads the handler to the subject, known as the refind. Often air scent teams are assigned to search parks, green belts, and accessible properties, based on the direction of travel indicated by the trailing dog. KCSD continues, tracking/trailing dogs are trained to follow the path a lost person has taken. As Gerstman explains, trailing teams train weekly, working on lead, needing a last known place of the missing person and a scent article (such as an article of clothing, or a favorite sitting spot), which needs to be carefully handled so that it isn't contaminated with a scent from another individual. KCSD continues, the team must pass a proficiency evaluation prior to participating in actual searches. The teams will also train in specialty searches: evidence, water, disaster, or avalanche, where the dog handlers are required to attend classes in first aid, land navigation, wilderness survival, search strategy, and other related subjects.

According to the Search and Rescue Dogs of the Unites States (SARDUS), a nonprofit national association supporting search and rescue dog teams and search managers, cadaver, or human remains detection (HRD) teams are specialized in locating human remains (bones, tissues, and fluids such as blood) and full cadavers; the teams can assist in the investigation of crimes where blood or other fluids may be present, as teams are trained in crime scene preservation, in which many teams may be law enforcement professionals. Water search teams are deployed to recover victims that have drowned, where the teams search either from shoreline, or from a boat in open water; the specially trained teams can help to pinpoint the location of the submerged body and assist divers in their recovery. SARDUS works with Federal, State, and local agencies to set up disaster dog teams who respond on a local level to disasters in the first operational period, the period which is 'the best chance of recovering victims alive.' The disaster teams are tested to the FEMA requirements, where SARDUS is comprised of FEMA dog handlers and evaluators. According to the California Rescue Dog Association, Inc. (CARDA), with the mission to train, certify, and deploy search dog teams to assist law enforcement and other public safety agencies in the search for lost and missing persons, avalanche search teams are trained to locate avalanche victims buried in the snow.

The Trail of the Search and Rescue Dog
Many times, an individual may be found missing from their residence, where a search and rescue team may be requested for help in locating the individual. Gerstman accounts the search and rescue procedure, with the example of an elderly gentleman who had Alzheimer's Disease in Renton, Washington. KCSD accounts, in April of 2011, at 2100 hours, a callout was made for a missing gentleman (he had left his residence at approximately 1800 hours), where Designee for the Dog Supervisor (or Operations Leader) (DS) for the search mission number 15 was called. Gerstman explains, a dog and handler has a number for radio communication and tracking mission activity. "In Explorer Search and Rescue, the search teams get assigned a team number at every mission. For the dog unit, we have numbers permanently assigned to us." KCSD continues, trailing teams 4 and 20 were deployed; air scent teams 10, 22, 27, and 29 were deployed, with support teams 2, 11, 14, and 17.

Gerstman continues, when an individual, such as the elderly gentleman, is found missing from his residence, the individual's family or care taker calls 911 to report the missing person; they are then connected with special operations, which oversees search and rescue. An oncall search and rescue deputy will gather pertinent information to ascertain what search and rescue resources are necessary. The deputy will do a "call out" with texts to various volunteer units within King County Search and Rescue (KCSD is one of nine units); every county has their own volunteer search and rescue organization, handling their canine teams differently.

A KCSD DS will get the call and send out a message to the unit, asking who can respond; the call may specifically request, "Trailing and air scent dogs needed," where available volunteers respond to the search base. The operations leaders from all units work with the search and rescue deputy to execute resources; the DS then gives assignments to the dog teams and coordinate communications, tracking the progress as the teams report from the field.

"Dog 20" is the handler and her dog, a German Shepherd certified as a trailing team, assisted in the trailing of the elderly gentleman. The team ventures to the place last seen (PLS) by the individual and the dog is given an article to sniff and begins trailing, "often needing to case a net by allowing the dog to check the area to pick up scent." Once the dog has found the scent, he or she will start following it, as the handler recognizes whether the dog is on scent (the dog's nose will be on the ground, the dog's body language, intensity of the pull on the leash, particularly when he or she crosses surfaces or come to intersections); the team would have developed techniques to continue on scent. In this particular case, air scent teams were also checking nearby areas.

Depending on the search, multiple trailing dogs can be working to confirm that that trail has been picked up, such as in urban settings. The trailing team can come to a bus stop, a business, or a residence; law enforcement then follow up and may be able to locate the missing individual through further investigation. In other scenarios, the missing individual may be found sitting on a bench, in the brush, or in a myriad of places. "Our teams have located individuals in an unlocked car, laying by the door of an RV, sitting in blackberry bushes, and sitting on a porch of a neighbor." As KCSD accounts, in the case of the elderly gentleman with Alzheimer's, Dog 20 trailed him to a bus stop near his residence, as a man-tracker confirmed a track of the gentleman at the same bus stop; he was located the next day in Seattle, near a former residence, with a total search time of 73.5 hours.

As Gerstman observes, "The best cases are when a missing individual is found quickly and brought back to safety." What is devastating, "when a search is called because no one has been located and resources are tapped." A memorable search for Gerstman was in the summer of 2008, for three reasons: the search for the individual, found safe, was within 30 minutes; the search was done with his trusted partner, Edgar (a yellow Labrador); and Gerstman was able to see his father.

A Memorable Search
On a Sunday afternoon during the summer of 2008, KCSD received a call for an elderly gentleman, named Melvin, who was in his 60s with diminished capacity; Melvin went missing during a group outing to a park in West Seattle, where the group home staff spent a few hours looking through the park, and eventually called 911 for assistance. Gerstman's unit responded to Camp Long, a forested camp amidst the urban environment of West Seattle, with several dog teams deployed to search different segments of the park; Edgar, Gerstman, and support member, Chris, were assigned to the southwest segment of the park. Gerstman let Edgar off leash and was commanded to search. "As we hit the trail system, Edgar's nose kept going up'a sign he was getting a scent. At each bend in the trail, he stopped and [his] nose went up, and then on the third turn, he left the trail and burst through the woods," as Gerstman called out Melvin's name in hopes for a response.

Within a couple of minutes, Edgar returned to give his trained indication, a tug on his toy attached to Gerstman's backpack; as Edgar led Gerstman, Gerstman began to hear slight moaning and grumbling sounds. Edgar brought Gerstman and Chris through a strand of blackberry bushes to discover Melvin sitting in the thicket. After a preliminary health assessment, Melvin was responsive with no obvious injuries, "After we pushed the thorny branches away, he was able to stand and then he walked with us back to the parking lot where his caretakers awaited him. The whole search from our time on scene to returning to the parking lot was less than 30 minutes."

This particular search was memorable for Gerstman because his father was living in a long term care facility, which was located approximately ten minutes away. Gerstman was able to visit with his father, and share the good news of the search: finding the elderly gentleman. "Even through the haze of the respirator and meds he was on, he squeezed my hand and I thought I detected a smile."

To Gerstman, being a part of team, locating a missing individual and bringing that person home safely is extremely rewarding. What Gerstman treasures most is his bond with Edgar, his first partner, whom he characterizes as "a freak of nature." During their training exercises, Edgar could find people up to a half mile away, and lead Gerstman to the person. As a team, Gerstman and Edgar participated in perhaps, hundreds of searches from the time they first certified in 1999 until Edgar's retirement in 2010. Gerstman recently certified with his current partner, Natick, "who has many similar traits and abilities to Edgar," as Gerstman and Natick continue to cultivate their bond and working relationship. However, it is the 13 years Gerstman trained and worked with Edgar which "comprise the most amazing and intense experience."

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:04 PM EDT | More details


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