TULSA, Oklahoma -
Volunteers crawled between heavy slabs of cement, finding a comfortable enough spot for a several hour wait. As they wedged themselves under the rubble of a simulated disaster area, other trainers carefully covered the “victims” with sections of fencing, blocks and other debris.
You can’t be claustrophobic and volunteer for this job.
It’s all part of Oklahoma Task Force 1’s regional search and rescue testing. Each dog will have 15 minutes to run through the large pile of debris, locate each buried victim and bark an alert to let their humans know the search was a success.
It’s a serious business, training and testing search and rescue dogs. The nine teams of canines and handlers in Tulsa this weekend for Urban Search and Rescue certification know their abilities can mean the difference between life and death.
But under the sunny Oklahoma sky on Sunday, the canine partners were clearly enjoying the chance to demonstrate their skills.
“This is just a big game for them,” said Tulsa Firefighter Vincent Stoops. “When we bring them out here, this is their playground.”
Stoops’ K9 partner Magnum passed the tests on Saturday, but the pair returned the next day to support the other teams from Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Texas and Florida.
“Out here” is a field owned by the City of Tulsa, located on the northeast edge of town. The Oklahoma Task Force 1 and Tulsa Fire Department have created a mock disaster site from old airport runway and highway slabs, abandoned cars, pallets and fencing.
The area is used regularly for training and, on Sunday, for the first level of tests the dogs must pass before being deployed to real natural and man-made disasters.
“They’re the first ones in,” Stoops said of the rescue teams. “They’re the first ones to make a difference in a disaster area.
“Everybody’s having a bad day, and we show up,” Stoops said. “We get to be the first ones in to hopefully make their day better.”
The dogs are being evaluated for obedience, agility and drive. They are run through a training course that includes climbing a nearly vertical ladder and maneuvering over ramps, through fences and barrels.
Mark Dawson was in Tulsa to evaluate the rescue teams. He came in from Connecticut where he serves as a search team manager for that state’s rescue task force.
A veteran searcher, Dawson is on his third canine. He worked Ground Zero in the first eight days after 9/11 and knows firsthand what the handlers will face upon deployment.
“It’s very rewarding,” Dawson said, “but one of the things I always take home with me at the end of the day is making sure we bring closure to that loved one that’s lost.
“We bring closure to that family because that’s so important.”