COLUMBIA, Mo. – After the island of Maui was consumed by flames on Aug. 8, FEMA deployed Missouri Task Force 1 and its human remains detection canine team on Aug. 16.
MO-TF1 began its development in 1995 and is a division of the Boone County Fire Protection District in Columbia. The task force is one of 28 FEMA urban search-and-rescue task forces across the country. FEMA funds MO-TF1 with $1.2 million per year. One of the team’s main tasks is to provide canine search, detection and rescue teams to disaster areas.
Canine handler Cathy Schiltz says 44 search and detection pooches scoured the Maui terrain in pursuit of human remains. Schiltz explained her border collie, Matty, will stay with a victim’s body and alerts handlers until they can get to the area on foot.
“They are trained to search rubble piles in a disaster,” Schiltz said. “There’s a lot of different levels of human decomposition from somebody who recently passed. These dogs are trained to find burnt remains. Not all dogs who are trained for human remains can do that kind of nose work.”
Ellen McGarry also took her herding dog, Tad, along for the mission. McGarry says she began training Tad at a very young age and told The Heartlander it takes two years to prepare a dog to become certified in human remains detection. The handler says her team must make search missions engaging for their canines to keep them occupied and performing at 100%.
“We have to maintain a level of fun for the dogs in order for them to keep working in that environment,” McGarry said. “Where we stand is at five or six feet tall, where they are searching is two inches to a foot above the ash. We’ve gotta stay positive for them.”
Schiltz says this mission differed greatly from anything she has experienced before. Canine search teams were forced to wear booties due to hot pavement and nails left behind by burned structures. MO-TF1’s canines had never been trained in booties.
“That’s like you trying to do your computer with mittens on,” Schiltz says. “That was a challenge, and that was unique. I’ve been doing this for 26 years and it was the first time we had to wear booties. The dogs adapted very well to it. One of the days when I took Matty’s bootie off, he had gotten a nail lodged alongside of it. It was about three inches long. Luckily, that did not go through his foot, but that could certainly be a possibility.”
The dogs and their handlers fly on commercial airlines when deployed. American Airlines allows the specially trained canines to ride at the feet of their owners, but they must not occupy a seat or aisle. McGarry noted American Airlines made fantastic accommodations for each handler and pooch during the Maui trip.
Gale Blomenkamp is MO-TF1’s Support Service Bureau Director, and says he would like to give thanks to the group’s canine handlers and their families, who hail from all four corners of the Show-Me State.
“Without the support of each of those members’ families and without the support of each of those employers that allow those members to go out on deployment, we would not be who we are today, nor would we exist. We cannot say thank you enough,” Blomenkamp said.