BLOG - BRISTOL IN FOCUS: superdogs and their heroic handlers
IT’S easy to be left simply open-mouthed at the extraordinary abilities demonstrated by the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) dogs at this week’s major exercise at the former Barrow Hospital site.
You can be swept away by the fact that a dog could ever be trained to happily be attached to a harness and glide down a zip wire from the top of a building without so much as a whimper.
You can also be consumed by the wonder of how an animal can track down the scent of a living human buried in rubble, surrounded by dead people – the science behind the fact that the dogs can smell the CO2 being exhaled by the buried survivor is mind-blowing.
But as I watched the clever canines going about their tasks at the exercise, organised by Avon Fire and Rescue Service this week, I was also conscious of something more – the sheer bravery of the dogs’ handlers.
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These serving firefighters from brigades across the country, take home their partner pooch each evening – they’re as much a family member as they are a colleague at the scene of disasters.
But at a moment’s notice, both handler and dog will jump into their car and speed towards the sort of devastation that most of us would be speeding to get away from – whether here in the UK as part of USAR, the Government’s “national resilience” network, created to deal with any major domestic disaster, or with ISAR – International Search and Rescue.
The selfless devotion of these firefighters came home to me as I chatted to Steve Buckley, the dedicated handler for Bryn – Bristol’s own search and rescue collie.
Steve and Bryn rushed to Japan following the earthquake of 2011, without a moment’s thought for the danger they were putting themselves in as they worked away, hunting for survivors in the shadow of the Fukushima nuclear plant, which had been critically damaged in the quake.
“At first we were blissfully unaware of the danger we were in from radiation,” Steve admits. “The folks back home were getting more news about the unfolding disaster than we were on the ground.
“But after a few days it became clear that something was very seriously not right. Japanese officials on the ground gave us devices that we clipped to our overalls, which continually monitored the levels of radiation in the air. But I didn’t worry too much about my own safety at that stage.
“Then we were told there was a US Navy ship at anchor nearby, with helicopter crews on stand-by to get us all out of Japan at a moment’s notice in the event of a major nuclear incident. That’s when it really started to hit home. That’s when I thought, dear God, I’m in the middle of something big here.”
Steve found himself in a situation where you or I might have quietly started checking the times of the next flight out of the country. But Steve, in typical firefighter fashion, ploughed on with his life-saving work.
“It’s just what you do,” he told me. “While there are people in there to be rescued, your natural instinct is to carry on and let Bryn do his job – to find survivors and get them out.”
It’s this sort of selflessness that truly leaves you in awe of these men and their extraordinary canine companions.
Feature writer David Clensy writes The Post's daily Focus features