OKLAHOMA CITY (News9.com) - When disaster strikes firefighters and rescue crews rely on their dogs to help find survivors trapped in the aftermath. But the standard to become a FEMA certified urban search and rescue dog for the state is extremely high. On Saturday, eight dogs were put to the test in Oklahoma City.
"We're looking for people that are trapped and can't help themselves," OKCFD Lt. Dane Yaw said.
Oklahomans know disaster damage and debris all too well, victims often trapped under piles of debris and concrete in the aftermath.
"The concrete rubble pile is what we come across in the tornadoes or what we had with the Murrah bombing," said Yaw.
Rescue dogs have to be the best. And less than half of the dogs pass the rigorous tests, like the one set up in Oklahoma City for dogs from Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Texas and Florida.
The dogs have just 20 minutes to find the last volunteer survivor or survivors buried in a massive heap of manmade destruction. Their handlers don't know beforehand how many "survivors" their dogs must find or where they are located, just like in a real disaster.
Saturday, there were six volunteers buried in the mess, along with things to distract the dogs like dead animals, their owner's clothes and food. The rescue dogs must use their little noses to find the victims and give an authoritative bark. Their handlers must flag that location and the dogs must get back to work.
"All handlers strive to have their dog certified," Yaw said.
Watching the back and forth was almost painful for Yaw. He's been through this with his dog.
"It's what they've been pouring their heart and soul for the last two years of training come down to 20 minutes on the rubble pile," said Yaw.
But to the dogs, this test is not that serious. It's the only time they get to "play". They're trained that way, so in the dog's mind all the "victims" have squeaky toys and treats and want to play.
"To the dogs it's a big game of hide and seek."
The rescue teams have quite a unique relationship to say the least.
"It's a love hate relationship," Yaw said. "It's so extremely serious and stressful job for us, but to the dogs it's another training day. They're playing and having fun."
Three of the eight dogs that took the test Saturday passed. They can now be deployed anywhere disaster strikes in the U.S.
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