by Cheshire Kitten on 10 June 2011
in the Special World News section of The Anipal Times
I had a great opportunity today to interview Jason Smith, a fire fighter in Oklahoma City, and handler for Jagger, a search and rescue dog from National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. Jason has been a fire fighter for more than 21 years, and Jagger is his first canine partner. Jagger and Jason deployed to Joplin, Missouri, right after the tornado hit. Their task force, Oklahoma Task Force 1 (OK-TF1), is a State Urban Search and Rescue response team. SUSAR teams are deployed in states under orders of state officials. SUSAR teams can also be called to assist out of state if the need arises under a mutual aid type of agreement.
How long have you been working with search dogs?
Jagger is my first dog. I’ve never had any formal training to work with dogs before him.
Does Jagger live with you?
He stays with me 24 hours a day. He comes to the fire station with me.
I also work on an ambulance on my days off. He can’t go in the ambulance. If I wanted to push the issue, he probably could because he’s a service dog, but it’s not important that he go on the ambulance. We’re not going to search for anybody.
(Jagger stays at home when Jason is working on the ambulance.)
What does Jagger do while he’s at home?
We have a couple of other dogs that he likes to play with. We also train every day. He needs an outlet to reduce his energy. Sometimes we train two or three hours.
Is Jagger your first dog ever, or did you have dogs before?
I had house dogs or yard dogs. They are dogs that have no purpose other than to have a dog to love.
What makes Jagger different from a house dog or yard dog?
Jagger is really toy driven. He is driven to do things. He gets anxious and antsy if he’s just laying around. Jagger has a purpose. One of the things that makes him special like that is he comes from the pound.
A lot of SDF dogs are put in the pound because they are hard to take care of. They are high strung and driven. Those are exactly the characteristics that we look for in a search and rescue dog.
How long have you and Jagger been working together?
We got certified two years ago and got an advanced certification a year ago. We’ve had two deployments together. The first was after a tornado in Choctaw, Oklahoma, and then to Joplin.
What is different about working at a disaster site with a dog, rather than when you worked with a human team?
Before Jagger, I generally only had myself and my crew to worry about. With a dog, you’re doing what everyone else is and also making sure the dog stays as safe as possible. It’s a lot more difficult with a dog.
A firefighter can walk for hours, and although the search and rescue dogs have drive, they get tired faster than we do. After a couple of hours or so a dog must rest. There’s a lot of starting and stopping.
After a tornado like the one in Joplin, it takes a humongous amount of manpower time to search the whole area. One dog covers about the area of a disaster site that 10 humans can cover in about half the time.
How many dogs were working with your team in Joplin?
Our task force from Oklahoma City went with two dogs and we joined the Tulsa task force. We have five certified search dogs with our team while we were there.
Do you know how many dogs deployed in Joplin in general?
I’m not sure. There were a number of teams from out of state. There were teams from Kansas City and other places in Missouri that worked with dogs.
How long were you working in Joplin?
We were in Joplin 45 hours from start to finish. We’re a small enough team that we can mobilize quickly. Usually, we have from 24 to 72 hours. We do as much as we can, as quickly as we can. We are relieved by fresh crews.
What was the most memorable moment for you in working with Jagger in Joplin?
It might sound silly, but really, it’s the awesomeness of the dog. They can do so much work so much quicker than a human. It’s their sense of smell. They can go over a pile that we have already crossed and help us make sure no one is overlooked. Because their sense of smell is so good, you can send a dog across and they can pinpoint if somebody is alive. Unfortunately, we were unable to find anybody alive.
I know that handlers have a practice of hiding to give search dogs an opportunity to find someone, to keep their spirits up. Did you do that in Joplin?
Dogs are toy driven and the way they’re trained is that somebody hides with their favorite toy. It’s just a game for them. It’s always a game for the dog, it’s never work. The dog is sniffing out that person who is hiding and has their toy.
Really, the dogs need to rest once an hour if they are searching hard. You need to have somebody hide with the dog’s toy.
We would always like for dogs to find somebody alive, that’s what we train for, what we hope for.
Sometimes, the most important thing we can do is give the families and friends peace of mind knowing that their loved ones aren’t alive and they aren’t suffering. That, right there is worth it all. If you find someone, it’s the jackpot.
What set Joplin apart from other tornados you’ve seen?
What set it apart for me – I’ve never seen a tornado go through a downtown and wipe out restaurants and large commercial buildings, like Home Depot.
We’ve talked about what handlers do to keep the dogs’ spirits up, but what about yours?
We just can’t go hide somebody and go find them like the dogs. It takes a lot of talking. We talk to the other handlers, and we talk to our wives too. They know we have to do it. The other handlers and I are a real tight-knit group. There’s no one who’s known each other less than 10 years. There’s teamwork and brotherhood.
Is there anything you would like to say about your deployment with Jagger in Joplin that you haven’t said yet?
The importance of having as many search dogs as possible in a situation like Joplin. I want to make a plug for Search Dog Foundation. Their mission – it’s a good mission – is to strengthen disaster response in America. In all of America. You might think America is really big, but America is small. It is local communities and regions.
We try to get the dogs into individual communities and we can help that way. We help, and other communities see and then they see that they can help themselves, too.
The dogs aren’t cheap. We get them free from the shelter, but someone has to find them and match their characteristics with this work. The training is expensive, and so is training a fire fighter to work with a dog.
They do all this stuff without any government funding. They rely on good, old-fashioned giving.
Search Dog Foundation is a great outlet. The more help we can give them, the more search dogs we’ll have available for situations like Joplin.