VIDEO: Dogs on zip wires! Bristol's search and rescue collie joins nation's finest canine crusaders
David Clensy meets the heroic search and rescue dogs trained to find survivors in disaster zones
FOR a moment it feels unreal – like I have stepped into some sort of cartoon, where dogs are superheroes. As I look towards the upstairs windows of the crumbling former Barrow Gurney hospital, a border collie appears attached to a zip wire.
As eight-year-old collie Bryn makes his way to the ground, connected to his handler, firefighter Steve Buckley – it quickly becomes clear that these are no ordinary dogs.
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Moments later and Bryn is disconnected from the wire and is bounding confidently towards a series of rubble piles – sniffing the ground, focused entirely on finding the person buried beneath.
Trembling with anticipation at the thrill of the chase, Bryn pauses in his search, before picking up the scent once again, his tail wagging as he closes in on his target.
It’s only when his extraordinary sense of smell tells him he’s standing directly above the buried human, that he lets out his first bark, then a second and a third.
Moments later his barking is incessant – a high-pitched bark that sounds all the world like “found-him, found-him, found-him”.
Such is the life-saving skill of the fire service’s USAR (Urban Search and Rescue) and ISAR (International Search and Rescue) canines.
Luckily the “disaster” facing Bryn today is purely an exercise.
With 19 of the USAR units from across the UK descending on the Barrow Gurney site to train the dogs to find people buried in the rubble, it’s one of the organisation’s biggest training exercises of the year.
Gary Carr-Smith, station manager of the Urban Search and Rescue unit for Avon Fire and Rescue Service, based in Nailsea, explains that USAR was developed in the UK in response to the 9/11 attacks on New York.
“It became clear that we needed a network of units specialised in dealing with large scale disaster contingencies,” he explains.
“So of the 50 or so brigades in the UK, 21 have a USAR unit embedded in them – normally in the high density conurbations. But in the event of a major disaster, we can come together to tackle it as an integrated force from all around the country.
“Then 10 of those USAR units are also trained as ISAR units – the search and rescue groups that are sent by the Government to assist in disaster zones around the world – most recently places like Japan, Haiti and Pakistan.
“We have the training and equipment to deal with a wide range of eventualities – not just terrorist attacks, but also natural disasters, gas explosions, chemical, biological, nuclear incidents – the full spectrum.
“The scale of USAR is in fact designed to be able to deal with three large scale disasters simultaneously – we have a full-time staff of 16 men based in Nailsea, along with an additional 14 retained firefighters who are attached to the unit.”
But the team is not entirely human. Which is where Bryn the dog comes in.
“Each of the USAR units has at least one search and rescue dog – some have as many as three.
“The dog is not necessarily based in the force area. Bryn for example is an ISAR dog based with the fire service in Cheshire, but he is also the USAR dog for Avon Fire and Rescue Service – so in the event of a major incident, he is the dog that comes straight down the motorway to get involved.”
In fact Bryn has experience of the worst kinds of disaster zones – including a trip to the scene of devastation following the earthquake in Japan a couple of years ago.
Bryn’s handler Steve explains that the brigade’s star dog even made national headlines while serving in Japan.
“Bryn cut his leg while searching through the rubble,” Steve recalls. “It wasn’t actually a bad cut, but because he was running around and his heart was pumping, there was a lot of blood on his leg.
“It made a dramatic photograph for the front of The Daily Mail – so much so I had to borrow a satellite phone from a British TV crew so I could call my wife and reassure her that Bryn wasn’t actually badly hurt.
“Because that’s the thing,” Steve adds. “Bryn is brilliant at finding people in the rubble, but first and foremost to me he is a member of my family. He works with me each day, and comes home with me each evening.”
In fact, Steve says, the USAR rescue dogs – whether collies, springer spaniels or Labradors – are all trained to identify one thing.
“They are trained to pick up the scent of a living person,” he says. “They will walk over dead bodies in the rubble and not look twice – they know the difference because of the scent. What they’re actually smelling is the CO2 being breathed out by the person, but they can do it from an incredible distance.
“So you allow the dog to work ahead of you, and any other rescue workers – so they’re not being distracted by your scent. Then when they pick up on the scent, they simply bark, and that’s when we can begin sending down cameras into the rubble and start digging.”
The dogs’ work has saved numerous lives.
Another of the handler/dog pairings being put through their paces at the exercise is Graham Currie, from Essex Fire Service, with his springer spaniel Kirby.
“Kirby was graded at the end of his training last March, making him a USAR search and rescue dog,” Graham says. “Then three days later, we were called to the scene of a gas explosion in Clacton-on-Sea. Within one minute on the scene Kirby had found a living survivor under the rubble, and within two hours we had dug him out alive.
“Nobody had thought the man was in the house at the time, so it’s fair to say that Kirby’s input genuinely did save that man’s life.”
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