Dog's search skills don't end at shore

Recovery: The Gamber fire company's water rescue unit includes a canine member with a nose for finding missing people off land.

July 27, 2004|By Ellie Baublitz | Ellie Baublitz,SUN STAFF

The newest member of Gamber and Community Fire Company's water rescue team has abilities that the human divers don't have: He can detect human scents on water, even ones so faint that they can't be detected by any machine.

Boomer, Gamber's search and recovery yellow Labrador retriever, and his handler, Michael Rehfeld, joined Carroll County's only water rescue team in November.

"The dogs are trained to find bodies in the water," Rehfeld said. "The human body always gives off scent cells, whether you're alive or dead, and that scent is carried on the water current."

The dog can detect the scent and lead rescuers to an area where a person or a body is likely to be found. Boomer has six water finds to his credit, Rehfeld said.

The water rescue unit consists of a 14-foot inflatable Zodiac boat for swift-water rescues, a 19-foot hard-bottom skiff for open-water rescues, 10 divers, 15 to 20 boat operators and support staff, and now Boomer and Rehfeld.

A second dog, Grace, a black Lab, also is trained to find humans on land, such as lost children or Alzheimer's patients, Rehfeld said.

Boomer and Rehfeld were part of the team that went to Prettyboy Reservoir in northern Baltimore County on July 8 to search for a missing boater. Unfortunately, Boomer wasn't able to find the man, whose body was located two days later.

Difficult duty

When the water rescue team arrives at the scene of a presumed drowning, its members know they are generally looking to recover a body. The recovery is for the missing person's family, said Richard Green Sr., first assistant fire chief and a member of the dive team.

"The son that survived brought his uncle and cousin ashore, then had to watch while they were given CPR," Green said of the Prettyboy Reservoir effort. "If somebody's in the water, the family will sit and watch every move you make, so you have to watch what you say and what you do.

"You know you're there for the body recovery, but the family doesn't know that," he said, adding that most people can survive less than an hour underwater. After one hour, rescuers shift from rescue to recovery mode.

In the incident July 8, four family members were at the reservoir on a boat when it tipped over.

Walter William Gover and Allan Wayne Harris of northern Baltimore County died at the scene. Robert Gene Harris Sr. of southern Pennsylvania was found two days later; his son, Bobby Harris, was the only survivor.

Boomer and Rehfeld also have helped in other efforts, including spending two weeks at the Pentagon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

"You don't realize how important it is to give something back to the families until you do it," Rehfeld said. "We found quite a few remains at the Pentagon. We had 27 teams of dogs and we had a 98 percent recovery and identification rate."

In 2002, Rehfeld and Boomer returned for the first anniversary ceremony, as did many of the victims' families.

"You'd be surprised how many families knew which dog found their family member's remains," Rehfeld said.

Increasingly used in different kinds of rescue and recovery, dogs "are a very important component of a recovery," Rehfeld said, helping to locate and narrow the area where a body might be found.

A playful demonstration

Rehfeld demonstrated Boomer's training last week, placing objects in a field next to the Gamber firehouse. When Boomer found an item, he did his "trained indication" - he ran back to Rehfeld, jumped on him and barked. At Rehfeld's "show me" command, Boomer ran back to the item.

"He's play-trained, so when he finds, his Frisbee is what he gets as his reward," Rehfeld said, throwing two flying discs for Boomer.

Like humans, if Boomer can't get close enough to a victim, such as someone buried in rubble, he gets frustrated, Rehfeld said.

"The dog will bark if he can't get to the body. That's an alert," Rehfeld said. "The handler has to be able to read the dog's change in behavior."

Rehfeld added that "you always have at least two dogs on a rescue, because they have good days and bad days, just like humans, but they can't tell you when they're having a bad day."

Because Boomer spent two weeks at the Pentagon, he's now a subject in a medical study to see whether there were any ill effects from working such an intense situation, Rehfeld said.

Boomer also went with the swift water rescue team this month after severe flooding in Baltimore County during violent thunderstorms that hit the area.

"We're automatically dispatched for anything west of I-83," Green said, but in extreme cases, they also help out Baltimore County's east side as well as Baltimore. Most of their calls, however, are for Liberty Reservoir and areas in Carroll that are prone to flooding.

"During Isabel, we used the Zodiac [boat] and evacuated about 100 people from their homes in 12 hours," Green said. "We were in Water's Edge in Dundalk, riding the water down the street like a car, over fences, right up to people's doors."

Gamber started its dive team in 1985 with a small boat and a few recreational divers, said Clayton Myers, the fire company's public information officer.

Just days before its unit was to become an officially certified dive team, the station got its first call for a drowning in Liberty Reservoir.

"A guy had been drinking and decided to go skinny-dipping off the Route 32 bridge," Green recalled. "We got him out pretty quickly, but he drowned."

The water rescue team gets only 20 to 30 calls annually, although that number will probably double this year, Myers said, because of all the thunderstorms this summer.

Nonetheless, the equipment and divers are always ready to go on a moment's notice.

"We have to be ready every minute, every day, with the divers ready to go," Green said. "There's nothing pretty about this. When you're called out, it means somebody's in trouble, and it's usually a bad outcome."

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