Buddy and Sally

Modern Firefighting – Urban Search and Rescue Dogs

By Rachel King, Firefighter and dog handler at Hicks Gate

The role of a modern firefighter has changed and Avon Fire and Rescue Service deals with an increasing number of varying incidents, one of which is Urban Search and Rescue (USAR).

To assist with this, the service currently has two USAR dogs in training at Hicks Gate fire station.

Buddy, a two-year-old Springer Cross, is looked after and trained by firefighter Martin Tully on Blue watch. He came from a rescue centre and was selected because he was too lively for his previous owners.

Sally, a two-year-old Labrador, is looked after and trained by myself on Green watch. She joined the service from a gamekeeper in Wales.

Both dogs live with their handlers and come to work when they are on duty. Their training is done alongside the normal duties of their handlers as fulltime operational firefighters and they are very much part of the Watch.

Currently non-operational, the two dogs are training to be “Air Scent” dogs, which means they are able to locate live casualties in a variety of different environments, from open area and woodland to collapsed structures and hazardous areas.

All their training is done with toy rewards, so if the dog successfully finds the casualty, then they are rewarded with the toy and a game of tug.

Throughout their training, it is important to use a variety of people as casualties, from different minority groups and of different ages to ensure the dogs locate all human scent.  

Once the dogs have found a casualty, they must stay with them and bark to indicate to the handler that they have found a source of scent. This then allows the firefighters to locate the casualty in a timely manner.

Along with their training, the dogs have specialist equipment to allow them to operate in hazardous areas including safety harnesses for working at height, harnesses with torches for confined space, boots in case of sharp debris or chemical spills and buoyancy aids for use on rescue boats and near treacherous water.

Obedience and directional control are extremely important for some of the hazardous areas that the dogs work in and we must be able to halt our dogs immediately or send them in a particular direction to search whilst we stay out of the risk area.

Both dogs have been in training for about a year and will be operational if they successfully pass their USAR Grading in March next year.