BEDFORD — Nose to the ground and tail in the air, 8-year-old Belgian Malinois Luke worked his way around thick concrete slabs, twisted metal pipes and rusting I-beams.
Mere seconds after entering the wreckage, he began to bark urgently much to the amusement of the onlookers nearby. Nobody there needed a reminder that Luke was fast.
“Nice job, buddy,” said his handler Karen Meadows as she pulled back the rubble with the dog’s help. “Nice. You won.”
Luke and Meadows, joined three other canine search teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s Virginia Task Force 2 to spend Saturday running drills at the Bedford Area Fire Training Center.
“There are so very few sites in the country and certainly in Virginia or on the East Coast that can do that type of training, that can resemble a collapsed city,” said Jack Jones Jr., Bedford County fire and rescue chief. “That’s really the environment that those animals work in and the handlers have to work in, so it replicates a true incident very well.”
Virginia Task Force 2, headquartered in Virginia Beach, is one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s 28 Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces. These task forces regularly respond to disasters and emergencies ranging from earthquakes and hurricanes to tornadoes and floods around the world.
Virginia Task Force 2 went to the Pentagon during 9/11, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the disaster site of 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Haiti seven years ago. In 2017 alone, Virginia Task Force 2 sent teams to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
While Virginia Task Force 2 has 240 members, only five are part of canine search teams, said veteran canine handler Lisa Berry, who is currently training a new dog, a 2-year-old Labrador named Petras.
“I was really impressed with how much they have to train and what their dedication is,” said Jack Phillips, one of the task force’s structural specialists who met the canine search teams when Task Force 2 was deployed to Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Maria in September.
FEMA, he said, gives the handlers a limited amount of money with which they are supposed to not only care for dogs, but also train the dogs at least once a month and recertify them every three years.
The more places the dogs can train, the more situations and environments they are prepared for in real disasters, Berry said. But training facilities for collapses are less common, which means handlers travel all over the country to find new sites for training, especially when the dogs specialize in collapsed sites, like the canine search teams Virginia Task Force 2 do.
“Sometimes our task force will help us with the expense, but we’re not paid, it’s volunteer to go to train at different facilities,” Meadows said.
Because of this, Phillips, who also operates a bed and breakfast with his wife in Moneta, offered the handlers both free lodging as well as a new location to train their dogs at no additional cost to them this weekend.
The training facility, which is jointly run by the town and county of Bedford, takes up around 25 acres and features a shooting range for the police department and a rubble site as well as a burn building, rapelling towers and hazmat sites, said Jones.
In addition to Bedford County Fire & Rescue, Roanoke Valley Fire Academy, Lynchburg Fire Department and Fairfax County-based Virginia Task Force 1’s canine unit have used the facility for training, he said.
“It’s interesting because the capability is huge,” Jones said. “Anything we can do to help another team and another group, particularly, any in the region. We call on each other routinely. Anything that’s reasonable for public safety, we’re usually willing to participate and assist another organization. There’s plenty of other people that help us as well.”
During Saturday’s training session, handlers and volunteers took turns hiding within the various holes in the Bedford Area Fire Training Center’s debris pile, which mimics urban rubble often found in natural disasters, while the dogs remain out of site. One by one, the dogs each sniffed out the person hidden among the rubble.
Both training and finding victims in real disaster situations is like a game of hide and seek for the dogs, said Meadows, who is also Virginia Task Force 2’s canine training coordinator.
“The lost person, the person they can smell but not see is the person they’re looking for,” she said. “We can have all these people up on the rubble and hiding people and the dog does not pay attention to anyone else. He goes for the one he can smell, but not see.”
In a disaster situation, the dog locates a person’s scent and performs what is called a bark alert, where it stays and barks to notify its handler of a victim’s location at which point structural engineers and the rescue component of the FEMA team are brought in to rescue the victim.
While the dogs still located scents at the Bedford Area Fire Training Center, they mostly enjoyed an afternoon filled with petting sessions, toys — which the handlers use both in training and in the field to motivate and reward a dog for locating victims — and lots of praise as they completed their exercises.
“Look how proud he is,” one trainer said as Rip Tide, one of Luke’s fellow canines on the team, walked off after a successful save, his head held high and toy clenched in his jaws.
“Luke is another one that likes to show off,” said Berry as she watched the dog prepare for his next run from on top of the rubble heap. “He’ll bring the toy by and show everybody.”