In dogged pursuit of a rescue

Proposal: Maryland should create an office to coordinate search-and-rescue efforts statewide, including the use of canine units.

June 13, 1999|By Deborah Stone

IT'S A NIGHTMARE. You turn around, and he's gone. Your 2-year-old child is missing, and your greatest fear is that he has wandered into the woods around your home. Police mount an intensive search, but many hours later the child remains missing.

As it turns out, officers will not find this little boy. But a highly trained dog will. Search-and-rescue dogs are on the scene. Each has a powerful tool at its command: a nose with a scent capability at least 500 times greater than that of a human. One of those dogs will find that little boy, dazed, dehydrated and covered with ticks ... but alive.

This story unfolded recently in Charles County. It is evidence of the amazing ability of dogs to find a missing person when human beings come up empty-handed. Experts say that one search dog can cover a square mile in an hour, and that it would take 130 human searchers to cover the same area in the same amount of time.

Ten years ago, the Baltimore County Fire Department created a search-and-rescue dog unit. Initially, two puppies went into training: a black Labrador retriever named Mattie and a golden retriever named Barney. Mattie and Barney learned all aspects of search and rescue, including finding people in the wilderness and people who have survived disasters such as a building collapse. They also trained to search for cadavers and drowning victims. Search dogs can pinpoint the location of victims under water by smelling the cells from their bodies that rise to the top and drift into the air.

Sadly, at the age of 7, Barney was stricken with cancer. A huge response came from the community, as dollars poured into a fund for Barney's care. But efforts to save his life were futile. Not too long after the dog's death, the department's search-and-rescue dog unit also died.

The fire department terminated the team in September. A department spokes-man says the unit was not cost-effective, explaining that while money was continuously spent on the dogs' upkeep and training and for handlers' equipment, the dogs were not needed often enough to justify the expenses. Besides, the dogs and their handlers often responded without charge to calls for assistance in other jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, but seldom were called on by Baltimore County police. The Baltimore County Police Department has acquired a bloodhound and is training a second. The fire department says these dogs, along with others in the canine patrol unit, can perform search-and-rescue work when needed.

Handler Bruce Snyder and his dog, Riggs, were the only members of the Baltimore County Fire Department's search-and-rescue unit when the department decided to discontinue the program. Unhappy about the decision, Snyder has created the nonprofit, all-volunteer CHESARDA (Chesapeake Search and Rescue Dog Association) as a way to keep these talented dogs at work.

CHESARDA is one of several volunteer search-dog groups in the region. Snyder has requested that CHESARDA receive the money left from the fund created for Barney. This request apparently awaits action by the county.

Snyder is also trying to persuade regional decision-makers to work with CHESARDA in setting up a state office of search-and-rescue resource management. This would be a central organizing entity to coordinate search-and-rescue efforts statewide -- of which dogs would be only one part. A call to that office would create a multifaceted response that would include volunteer handlers and their dogs, and search helicopters. To generate funds for this project, CHESARDA has requested $140,000 in grant money from the France-Merrick Foundation in Towson. France-Merrick is expected to make a decision on the request next month.

Many people think the idea for a central search-and-rescue office has great potential. Cole Brown, the Maryland State Forest and Park Service Search and Rescue coordinator, is one of them. He sees the need for an office that would create statewide uniformity in the response to emergencies.

Cpl. Stephen Morgan of the Anne Arundel County Police Department Missing Person Section is also interested in the idea. When he has a missing-person case, he often relies on the aid of CHESARDA. He called on the group Monday, when an elderly man with Alzheimer's disease disappeared from his home into nearby woods. Morgan says that when human lives are at stake, "You can't gamble. My job is locating the missing and to find a fast resolution." He says it saves time when he can make one call to CHESARDA, rather than making multiple calls to different police agencies, hoping to find one whose dogs are available for a search.

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