The dogs that save lives in disaster zones
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 November 2013 | UPDATED: 10:45 11 January 2016
When disaster strikes anywhere in the world, specially-trained dogs can be life-savers. Emily Rothery met one in Chorley
Watching Islay as she searches through rubble and the remains of damaged buildings, it’s hard to believe the border collie was once the runt of the litter. I meet fire-fighter Kirt Livesey and his dogs at Lancashire’s Fire and Rescue Training Centre based at Chorley. Kirt is a member of the Urban Search and Rescue Team and specialises in training and using search dogs to pinpoint casualties trapped in disaster zones.
Over the years Kirt and his older dog, Holly, have been to some notable incidents including the aftermath of an earthquake in Algeria, in which more than 2,000 died and another 10,000 were injured. a major train derailment and a massive gas explosion at a disused hospital near Manchester. ‘Holly is 16, and retired now,’ says former Royal Marine Kirt. ‘But she thrived on work and worked hard until she was 12. She was so strong and determined.’
Today Kirt’s other border collie, six-year-old Islay, is to be put through her paces as she practises searching for a ‘body’ in the centre’s simulated environment, which includes a series of hazards such as damaged buildings, rubble and tunnels. Chris Taylor, the team leader, is hidden and will act as the trapped victim.
Islay emerges from the specially adapted van primed and ready to go. Kirt removes her lead and collar so there are no snagging hazards to hinder or put her in danger and he gives both verbal commands and hand signals.
Islay responds and begins to scent the air as she searches methodically. She is a steady and diligent worker with a strong instinct for looking after herself yet Kirt is ever watchful making sure that she is safe and ready to obey his commands. Islay indicates that she has found the ‘body’ by barking and staying still to avoid further movement in a precarious situation.
In real life Kirt would be watched by a ‘spotter’, another team member who makes sure the handler doesn’t put himself in danger while focusing on the dog. Kirt may also have to climb up ladders or abseil down from buildings with Islay in his arms. The pair may have to be lifted by helicopter and deal with many difficult scenarios so it essential that Islay is constantly attuned to her handler’s firm, yet calm, commands. It is a demanding job and the dog is given a break at 20-minute intervals.
‘Obviously in a real rescue the scents of other rescuers can be a problem for the dog but they do learn to discriminate to some extent. I also try to keep colleagues down wind. The dogs even have an uncanny ability in a practice situation to sense if the hidden ‘body’ is wishing he was elsewhere drinking a nice cup of tea in the warmth. The dog will act accordingly and only carry out a half-hearted search,’ says Kirt with a wry smile.
Although Islay was considered the runt, Kirt could see the potential. ‘I picked her because she was inquisitive and ran for the ball when I threw it. I also knew that Holly wouldn’t accept another dog and that I would have to get a puppy. Holly has learned to tolerate her and at home they are both much loved family pets.’
Islay started to come to work as a pup so that she gradually got used to the surroundings. She started training in earnest at 12 months and passed her National Standard test on the second try, which is by no means unusual. Training is on-going and she is assessed once a year to ensure she meets the high standards required.
She is classed as a national asset and can be used anywhere in the country but will only work under Kirt’s command. Kirt explains: ‘Ideally, I will team up with my opposite number from Manchester as working with two dogs is the Gold Standard in a rescue mission.’
When training his dogs Kirt feels that the secret lies in finding the key to unlocking each dog’s personality and strengths. ‘Obedience is fundamental but Islay’s strengths lie in her agility, her considered approach and phenomenal sense of smell. In a rescue we can use cameras to aid sight and seismic apparatus to aid hearing but no technology can compare to a dog’s exceptional nose.’
Not bad for a runt.