Vader, a search K9 with the San Francisco Fire Department, had a moment in the spotlight last week when the San Francisco Fire Department posted a video to Twitter of the dog climbing a ladder outside of the de Young Museum.
“This K9 may save your life during a disaster. Vader is trained as a live body search K9. Good job Vader!” reads the Twitter post.
But the dog had to escape its own near-death experience before it could be trained to save the lives of others.
Vader was scheduled to be euthanized when he was found by the National Search Dog Foundation. He was a stray living at the Rescue Ranch in Yreka, Calif. when the ranch got into touch with the foundation, an organization based in Southern California that rescues and recruits dogs to train them for disaster response.
“The staff there knew he needed a job but were not quite sure how to get him ‘hired,'” reads his bio on the foundation’s website.
He was eventually picked up by Kristen Fulk from Field of Dreams Kennel in Sweet Home, Ore., a recruiter for the Search Dog Foundation, who was on her way back up to Oregon from picking up two other search dog candidates.
Once Fulk got a chance to test out Vader’s skills at her kennel, she discovered that “he was darn good at searching,” according to the foundation.
And after two years of training, he was partnered with firefighter Eli Thomas and the San Francisco Fire Department. Together, they received certification to join the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue Teams in 2016. Then Vader received his SFFD badge in March 2017. He and Thomas serve at Station 12 in the Haight-Ashbury.
Since receiving his badge, Vader has served on a 80-person team responding to Hurricane Irma in 2017 and a team that responded to Tropical Storm Lane in Hawaii in August 2018. He didn’t get to enjoy his time in the social media spotlight for long – Vader was sent back down to Hawaii to respond to Hurricane Olivia, according to SF fire department public information officer, Jonathan Baxter.
Vader’s ascent up the ladder was part of a his station’s company drills for the day. “Everyday all of our stations do what’s called a company drill and it can be anywhere from shooting a fire hose or throwing a ladder or doing a drill with the K9 team,” Baxter said.
“It can be as extensive as doing a search and rescue drill, doing confined space drill or doing a cliff rescue drill, so we drill everyday on topics that we don’t necessarily do [in the field] every day, so that when we do have that type of an incident it’s pretty much dedicated to our memory banks.”
The video of Vader climbing the ladder may have looked cute, but that skill would usually be applied under dire circumstances. “You have to think of a major disaster, like a big earthquake. You have rubble everywhere, we can’t get firefighters to a location, it’s dangerous,” Baxter said. “These dogs can climb these agility areas – the ladder itself isn’t what we’ll make the dog climb, it’s teaching the dog confidence to go over those types of obstacles.
“So during a natural disaster these dogs will hit on an area, it’s like an indication there’s a live human person somewhere within a parameter, at which point we will dedicate our resources to that location to actually rescue an individual.”