Woman's skills, dog's senses save the lives of disaster victims


January 22, 2001|By Douglas Lamborne | Douglas Lamborne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NERO'S BAG IS packed, complete with food to keep him going for 48 hours. Elizabeth Kreitler is ready to go, too, her duffels within quick reach on the way to her SUV, the one with the K9VATF1 vanity plate.

Nero is the K9, a handsome German shepherd. He and Kreitler are members of VATF1, Virginia Task Force 1. It is on call nonstop, one of two teams in the country under contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development to respond to disasters overseas, where they assist in rescue efforts.

The recent earthquake in El Salvador, Kreitler said, came under the jurisdiction of the Florida-based task force. "Miami-Dade goes to disasters to the south of the U.S.," she said. "We go east and west."

She has gone east - twice after earthquakes in Turkey, and to Nairobi, Kenya, after the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in 1998. She made those trips with Nero's predecessor, Garret, who is in retirement.

Garret and Nero attract a lot of attention when Kreitler and her husband, Jay, take them walking around Annapolis. To the casual observer, the dogs seem larger than normal domestic German shepherds, more alert, more muscular and more rugged.

Garret and Nero, and other rescue dogs like them, come either from Central Europe or from places where certifiable blood lines can be traced directly to that region. "We go where they are still breeding these dogs for work," she said. "That means Europe."

Nero is from the Czech Republic and is a bit bilingual, having been trained in German during his formative months. He responds to commands such as "sitz" (sit), "fuss" (heel), "such" (track) and "komm" (come).

Nero will get a little nutty, hopping here and there like a puppy at the prospect of going in the back yard at the Kreitler home for exercise. Ordered to "such," he prowls the yard in a pattern that leaves little space unsniffed. He stops at the object of his search - Kreitler's beeper - and does a "platz" (also called "a down").

This discipline comes from many hours of work in the yard or at task force facilities in Fairfax County, Va. The grounds there include a rubble pile on which dogs practice seeking evidence of buried humans who might be alive.

"We human beings give off skin cells - 40,000 a minute - bacteria, dead skin cells. It's sort of like the cloud around the Pig-Pen character in the `Peanuts' comic strip. The dogs are trained to air scent, to respond to these cells. They are trained on live scent, to look for someone who is buried and inaccessible."

Kreitler and Nero are one of six dog teams available for deployment with the task force. The dogs are trained to work as a unit, to cover a lot of ground - or rubble - quickly.

"Training is a matter of paying attention to detail," Kreitler said. "You have to read each dog individually, and work with them constantly. The training never really ends."

The Fairfax and Florida teams are two of 27 teams nationwide maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "When there's a disaster, there are about 63 people on the Fairfax team who are deployed," she said. "We have people responsible for logistics, medical, structural engineers, and then specialists in rescue, specialists who extricate people."

In case of a disaster, they would be flown to the site in an Air Force C5, as they were to Izmit, Turkey, in 1999. Garret was part of the team that found a trapped woman, but the victim died before she could be rescued.

Kreitler, a retired sales executive, gives her time to the task force and to another group, Search and Rescue Dogs of Maryland.

Kreitler has not been summoned abroad since late 1999. That means Nero is untested in an earthquake disaster, although he has extensive experience in drills and lost-person searches.

"It's a good thing, I guess, that we haven't been called to travel," Kreitler said. "We should be thankful for that."

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