Searching for Live Victims
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Searching for Live Victims
This Council Corner is dedicated to yet another group of unsung heroes, people dedicated to helping others without notoriety or fanfare. Recently, I was able to witness a demonstration by a dog and her handler, a South San Francisco Fire Fighter, where the dog is trained to seek out “live” victims buried in the rubble of fallen buildings while traversing various obstacles. This K-9 team is certified as a “live” victim search team by FEMA (Home Land Security).

The South San Francisco Fire Department got involved in the program after the events of 911. Several SSF Fire Fighters were among the many San Mateo and Santa Clara County Firefighters deployed to the clean up and rescue efforts during the weeks following 911. During their deployment, they were able to observe first hand, the ability of the K-9 units that were utilized to identify the location of “live” victims at the 911-site.

K-9 search teams were utilized at both the Oklahoma City bombing and Hurricane Katrina and their successes demonstrated the need for more K-9 search units in a national system. A civilian handler was deployed to Oklahoma City with her FEMA certified K-9 where she and her dog were very successful in “live” finds. She saw a great need for more FEMA certified K-9 search teams that could be deployed when “live” victim searches are required as well as a national standard for qualifying K-9 teams. At the time, 1995, there were only 15 certified teams in the FEMA system. When she got back to Los Angeles, she started the National Search Dog Foundation in 1995.

In 2004, the South San Francisco Fire Department became interested in the Search Dog Foundation. Handlers were selected based on their home life, where they lived, and their commitment to training and providing a service to their community. Handlers were informed about the commitment to training a Search K-9, which included strains on their personal and family lives and it was also made clear that the program was voluntary and there was no compensation for their efforts. After many telephone exchanges, the prospective handlers signed agreements; the SSFFD received 6 dogs in the fall of 2005.

All 6 handlers attended two weeks of classes on the training of potential Search K-9s and then another seven days intense training being paired with a matching dog. The dogs are trained to identify the location of “live” victims in rubble in the hopes of rescue.

Certification by FEMA is granted after a two-day test that includes agility, control, obedience, and searching. Each of these tested elements is on a pass-fail basis with the national average being a 50% pass rate. This rigorous testing process must be passed before a dog can enter the program and with the rigid training set of requirements, only one out of every ten dogs will make it to final certification, good for three years.

Today, there are three SSFFD K-9 teams, attached to Task Force 3 out of Menlo Park, ready for deployment. These teams have performed 5 missions that included deployment during Hurricane Ernesto in August 2006. They are also a resource for the State and San Mateo County should the need arise.
With the increasing involvement in the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Program, this K-9 Search program is but another adjunct to the desire of being at the ready, should we be faced with a disaster.

My many thanks to Foster City Fire Chief Tom Reaves for setting up the presentation and to SSF Firefighter Tom Carney and his very capable dog Gypsy for a very enlightening demonstration.

I would appreciate your comments on this and other issues by emailing me at

Council Corner

June 12, 2008
Searching for Live Victims

City Hall - 610 Foster City Blvd.
Foster City, CA 94404
(650) 286-3200