Originally published 2001.
BOSTON, MA. Mark Dawson was at the start of his slide show on at the Tufts Animal Expo 2001 in Boston on October 11. It was exactly one month after the terrorists’ attacks on America.
Dawson and his black Labrador retriever, Elvis, were among the first search and rescue teams to arrive at the site of the World Trade Center in New York.
The instant the first slide appears, simultaneously a clicking sound is heard in the meeting room at the Hynes Convention Center – women opening their handbags and purses, followed by the sound of blowing noses.
Somehow seeing the devastation on a slide is more real than seeing pictures in the newspaper. “Still, it’s not like being there,” says Dawson, who’s been a firefighter for 24 years at the Greenwich Fire Department in Greenwich, Conn. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue Massachusetts Task Force 1 deployed him.
“When we arrived, I looked at the crater that was once the World Trade Center, and I thought, ‘There’s no way I can do this.”
Dawson was making his comments to veterinarians, vet technicians, shelter and humane workers, groomers, and dog trainers, among the 3,300 animal professionals attending the Expo.
“They attacked America. Still I didn’t know if I could emotionally handle this, or if Elvis could physically do this.”
Elvis is no slouch. He has an advanced title for search and rescue work, and is considered a Type I dog, the highest level of certification offered by FEMA. Elvis, who is 6-years old, has experienced more than four years of training to reach his level of excellence. Still, this was his first deployment.
Dawson says some dogs and some dog handlers just couldn’t do it. They quickly departed from Ground Zero. “I understood,” he says. “But Elvis was eager to do a job, really, I could tell. I’m not sure Elvis knows his job is to save lives, but he does know he has a job to do. And he enjoys his work. It’s Elvis who motivated me. I figured if he could do this, so can I.”
Dawson and Elvis mostly worked the night shift. “I thought maybe we would find someone in a void, or in the mall area. In the mall area, some stores didn’t even have significant damage. I was hoping we’d find someone, someone alive.”
Dawson began his training seven years ago with the fire department, learning how to use dogs in wooded areas to search for lost people like Alzheimer’s patients. He wanted to train his then 7-year old black Labrador, named KC, to sniff for evidence of arson in fires. But he was told his pooch was too old to train. Meanwhile, he was really getting into the search and rescue scene, attending training sessions as a pretend victim. He’d hide under rubble and debris; hoping dogs in training might find him. All along he was also learning about what search and rescue is all about.
Finally, Dawson felt he was ready to train his own dog for search and rescue. The idea was to see a litter of puppies, and temperament test each to assess which pup would most likely be best suited for search and rescue work as an adult.
Unfortunately, there was a mix-up with the breeder. When Dawson and his family arrived, all except one of the pups in the litter were spoken for, a squirmy little guy who the breeder named Elvis because “he looks like he’s all shook up.” Elvis wiggled his way into the Dawson family’s heart.
It turns out Elvis was just right for the work, and quickly caught on to his early training, which included basic obedience, temperament testing and learning to bark alert. This is an alert search and rescue dogs must learn so they can ultimately tell their handlers they’ve found someone. As he progressed in training, Elvis began to learn agility so he could navigate piles of rubble, which people would hide in as Dawson once did for other handlers in training.
FEMA pays handlers a stipend once they’re deployed at a disaster sight. But the training to make it that far is strictly out-of-pocket. That’s not to mention all the weekends and evenings Dawson devoted to training with Elvis.
The reward for Elvis is simply pleasing his person, and play sessions which are linked to the training. Dawson’s reward might actually be more difficult to describe. “I’m a firefighter,” he says. “I like running into burning buildings or falling buildings while everyone else is running out.”
Despite his training in search and rescue, and nearly a quarter a century as a firefighter – nothing could prepare Dawson or other rescuers for dealing with the disaster in New York. Elvis helped them to deal with their feelings just by being a dog. After completing one specific search near Vessey Street in conjunction with a New York ladder company, one fireman asked if he could pet Elvis. He sat down next to Elvis, petted him, and hugged him. Then, one by one each member of that ladder team – six guys followed, each spending his or her own time with Elvis.
For more information on search and rescue dogs, or how you can donate money for training, contact the FEMA team in your area, www.fema.gov.
Read about the New York Police Department’s K-9 unit, a search and rescue unit that recently received an award for their bravery and service at Ground Zero.
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