Search and Rescue Gone to the Dogs

It seems obvious now that pretty much any disaster situation can use the aid of search and rescue dogs. It’s amazing to learn just how rare those highly trained dogs used to be. It’s even more impressive to learn how one woman’s quest to improve the training and availability of those dogs has transformed the industry.

Buzz Feed has a great article about Wilma Melville, the woman responsible for creating the nation’s first centralized search and rescue dog training center.

Wilma Melville was one of the civilian handlers for FEMA’s Search-and-Rescue (SAR) dog teams in 1995. For her first major deployment, she was dispatched with her dog Murphy to the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City after it had been blown up. When Melville arrived she expected to be among the most inexperienced handlers there, but when she realized she was not it alarmed her greatly.

Melville had witnessed task forces combing the Oklahoma site with untrained dogs on leashes. She noted that some of the other civilian handlers didn’t understand the complex physics of a building collapse well enough to deploy their dogs in the most likely places to find survivors.

Melville returned home determined that something needed to be done to foster better training and funding. At the time there were only about 15 FEMA Advanced Certified teams like Melville and Murphy in the entire country.

She founded the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF), which has pioneered evaluation and training techniques to meet the country’s ever-growing need for SAR dogs.

There are now 263 FEMA-certified search and rescue dogs in the United States, ready to respond in minutes to disasters around the nation and the globe. Of those 263 dogs, 43 were trained by SDF.

Melville has big plans for the SDF as it grows. Its new 125-acre training grounds are expected to contain a 40-dog kennel, a half-destroyed suburban neighborhood with houses and all, derailed train cars, an indoor “disaster dome” training facility that can simulate winter weather, classrooms with video links for training dogs around the world, and more.

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