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Army using search and rescue dogs to ‘sniff out’ survivors

Email   Print   Share By Alexandra Hemmerly-Brown, ARNEWS
September 9, 2010 | Across DoD
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David Reiter, the Military District of Washington Canine Program Manager, preps Chyta, a Belgian Malinois who is part of the Urban Search and Rescue dog pilot program, before beginning training on Fort Belvoir, Va., Aug. 26. Alexandra Hemmerly-Brown, ARNEWS
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Chyta, a Belgian Malinois assigned to the Military District of Washington Canine Program, finds a “survivor” during Urban Search and Rescue training Aug. 26 at Fort Belvoir, Va. USAR dogs are trained to search for the scent of a live human below the surface of a collapsed structure or other obstacle.
WASHINGTON – A new pilot program enhances the life-saving capabilities of the Army’s only rescue-focused unit by adding a few extra noses to the team.

The Urban Search and Rescue dog pilot program, which was specifically designed to augment the 911th Engineering Company, employs the natural scent-tracking capabilities of canines to find survivors in the event of a catastrophe.

The 911th, based out of Fort Belvoir, Va., and assigned to the Military District of Washington, is a unique, quick-reaction tactical rescue unit poised to respond to natural disasters or attacks to the nation’s capital.

The unit, which was renamed for the role it played in extracting victims from the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, trains year-round in saving victims from confined spaces, collapsed buildings, crumpled vehicles, mines, tunnels and high elevations.

Finding injured survivors under mounds of rubble or in hard-to-reach spaces is a challenge in tactical rescue, so adding the human scent-detection ability that canines provide may help find victims more quickly and as a result, save lives.

“The dogs can go over the zones much faster than we can, and they can point out to us where survivors may be,” said 1st Sgt. Alexander H. Robles of the 911th. “When a structure collapses, you have small confined spaces, but spaces that are large enough for someone to survive in. Those spaces are extremely hard to search.”

Now six months into the pilot, the MDW provost marshal office is training two Belgian Malinois in search and rescue: Chyta and Beppie. The MDW hopes to add two more canines and handlers before the pilot’s completion in 2012.

“Dogs are a force multiplier,” said David Reiter, the MDW Canine Program Manager. “The sky is the limit on what you can teach a dog – you just have to harness that capability.”

Reiter, who is responsible for the USAR pilot and the training of all of the military working dogs in the MDW area, said he has full confidence in the dogs’ ability.

“These dogs have such a great drive for reward that they’ll maneuver any type of obstacle to get to it,” Reiter said.

The idea for the USAR program came last year during Capital Shield, an emergency and consequence-management annual exercise which the 911th participates in. During the exercise, the commander of MDW inquired about search and rescue dog capabilities, resulting in the program’s initiation.

Reiter explained that if this capability was ever needed previously, the Army usually relied on outside agencies.

“It’s definitely going to help them if they’re ever dispatched for response ... it’s going to enhance their ability to find live subjects under rubble a lot faster,” Reiter said of the 911th.

Formerly trained as combat tracker dogs, both Chyta and Beppie are well suited to “sniff out” survivors underneath collapsed structures –dogs are believed to be able to identify smells up to 10,000 times better than humans.

In order to find victims, handlers use the command “find them!” and a USAR dog will begin the process of searching an area, over obstacles and debris, for a specific scent – the smell of a live human trapped underneath a structure.

All humans constantly emit microscopic particles of tissue or skin cells that are cast off as the person travels. Millions of these heavier-than-air particles, which contain the person’s unique smell, are carried by the wind and normally settle close to the ground where a dog can pick up the scent. Each human has a distinct and identifying odor which is theirs alone.

USAR dogs are trained to disregard distractions such as the smell of other rescue workers, handlers or even other animals, and focus only on finding trapped victims. When the dogs find a survivor, they continuously bark at close proximity to the victim so the rescue team will know where to search.

“The dogs are amazing,” Robles said.

While only months into the pilot, Reiter and USAR dog handler Sgt. 1st Class William McEnaney have attended the USAR Trainer Course and plan to have both Chyta and Beppie nationally certified according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency standard in October.

“They love the capability,” said Reiter of the 911th. “They are looking forward to employing us in the future.”
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