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Four-Footed Heroes

Nancy J. Semon

Volunteers with the Peace River K9 Search and Rescue Association use dogs – and horses – to help search for missing persons.

What would you do if a loved one was missing or had wandered off? Naturally you would call law enforcement. But what if searchers yielded no early results? And what if your missing loved one is a child, a disabled person or has dementia? The weather in Florida is hot many days out of the year. Its terrain may be infested with snakes and alligators. Dehydration and drowning are just some of the risks faced by people who can’t fend for themselves. Scary stuff. But, it might be comforting to know that there is an organization that conducts searches for missing persons right here in our area. In fact, the group is so well-known that it is called upon to aid law enforcement all over the southeastern portion of the US.

A unique nonprofit organization, Peace River K9 Search and Rescue Association (PRSAR) trains volunteers and their animals – obviously dogs but also horses – to help law enforcement and families search for missing persons. The group is the brainchild of Michael Hadsell who became involved in search and rescue operations 38 years ago when he was living in California; he has been “hooked ever since,” he admitted. “I had a dog in California that was a really tough, aggressive male German Shepherd. That led me to a police K9 trainer who helped me get the dog under control and then recruited me for SAR in Los Angeles,” he explained.

We sat down with Hadsell and the group’s Interfaith Chaplain, Rev. Sarah Whitten-Grigsby, to learn more about this amazing volunteer organization, whose heroes are four-footed. And oh, what stories these animals could tell if they could speak. So we turned, instead, to their human friends to tell them.

After he came to live in our area, Hadsell realized an organization was needed that could help law enforcement, so he began to form the group in 2005. “Back in 2005 there was a high failure rate among tracking K9 and search K9,” he said. Hadsell spent several years traveling around North America “learning from the best K9 trainers in order to formulate the methods now in use by PRSAR,” he said.

Whitten-Grigsby had left a successful career in business in New York and moved to the Englewood area with her husband. She was looking for the next chapter in her new career of ministering to and helping others. The Englewood area offered her three dogs – two Hungarian Vizslas and one rescue dog from the Suncoast Humane Society – plenty of room on their property outdoors, unlike her former home in Westchester County, NY. She heard about PRSAR and contacted Hadsell, who, at the same time, was looking for someone to provide comfort to grieving and stressed families.

PRSAR is an active group. In the last two years it has had 44 deployments all across the southeastern US, Hadsell said. Its volunteers work for both law enforcement and the private sector. “Most of the time we are called by law enforcement to assist as a force multiplier for search efforts,” Hadsell said. To get started, law enforcement and PRSAR enter into a Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, which basically is a “written agreement as to what assists PRSAR will supply to the requesting agency,” he explained.

“Since our volunteers are trained to high standards, they can get right to work for the requesting agency.”

PRSAR also works “directly for families that have missing loved ones,” he continued. Sometimes this occurs after law enforcement has scaled back the search, but the families still want areas and leads checked to make sure “no stone has gone unturned.” There are teams that come into play such as the group’s FAST team, a family advocacy team assisting families to make sure that they have done all they can in their private search for their loved one. The group also works for private investigation and forensic agencies by providing human remains detection (cadaver dogs) to assist in cold cases.

In Florida, both the terrain and climate prove challenging for both handlers and their animals, Whitten-Grigsby pointed out. The animals endure conditions that they wouldn’t encounter in the West, Northeast or Midwest, for example. “It is amazingly difficult” for the animals, she said. “The animals are constantly watched for overheating.” She said that dogs tend to overheat more so than the horses. And when PRSAR is contacted to conduct a search, the K9 is “one of the first line of call out teams because they are so versatile and so good at what they do,” she added. “Horses do great work in very large wilderness areas; call outs for the horse teams average four to six times a year.” But it’s the K9s that often are used. If a dog seems to be in distress, it is immediately “put in air conditioning and shade,” Whitten-Grigsby added. But the heat is only one factor. “We also have snakes, alligators and spiders.” She pointed out that some search and rescues are conducted in snake-infested swampy areas. The human volunteers wear waterproof boots that a snake’s fangs can’t penetrate.

Volunteers buy their own supplies, including life-saving items, when out tracking a person in the heat of day. “They carry plenty of water and Gatorade, and they and their animals are kept hydrated,” she said. The dogs wear GPS collars. This way, “the path is recorded and we can see it on the computer.” This avoids duplication by searchers. Hadsell further elaborated on searcher gear, which includes hydration packs, tracking harness, battle dress uniform and good boots. They also need a good compass, GPS and snake gaiters – in essence, ankle, knee or hip length waders made from a waterproof material to prevent snake bites. Also, volunteers carry a good first aid kit that suits both human and canines.

There are about 15 dogs and a half dozen horses in the group. They hope to get more handlers who have horses, Whitten- Grigsby said. The animals and their handlers are trained for their particular function, and there are a number of teams within PRSAR, including a dive team, mountain bike team, long-range tracking and the AART team for individuals with autism or Alzheimer’s. There is a family advocacy team and an evidence search and recovery team, plus more.

Dramatic Rescues

Hadsell has four dogs – Nixie, Banner, Riley and Damma. Nixie, a German Shepherd, has been involved in two rescues.

“One of the first rescues that PRSAR had was during Tropical Storm Debby ( June 2012). The team was called out when a mentally handicapped man had wandered off from his dinner engagement with his family and went into the then-flooded streets of Punta Gorda. The Police K9 had attempted to track, but with no success. K9 Nixie was deployed and after getting the victim’s scent from his car seat, Nixie was able to track the victim through the water-flooded street and locate the victim in the woods about one-half mile from where he went missing. It was truly a testament to the new training methods PRSAR was using.”

Hadsell continued: “Not long after Nixie’s success, the team would be deployed again to assist the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office in locating a young girl who had run off from her day care. It was a very hot evening, getting dark, and the area was heavily wooded and dangerous at night to navigate. A newly certified K9 named Roman (a rescued pound dog that had been scheduled for termination) handled by Julie Starbuck was deployed. The dog was able to work through the heavily contaminated area and find the girl’s exit trail and track to where she was recovered.”

Sadly, sometimes the outcome isn’t positive and there is no happy ending. Fortunately, PRSAR provides emotional support, unlike some other groups or search parties. “I have been on searches where there was no grief counselor available for the family or the searchers, which was tragic,” Hadsell related.

“Several years ago, at the end of a search in Brooksville, I was near a mother who was informed by the search manager (the people involved were not with PRSAR) that her son had been found suicided. After she was notified they just left her there alone with no one to comfort her.” Hadsell’s wife, Dale, was on hand, and she “caught her and we got her seated and spent a great deal of time comforting and praying with her.” He continued, “The lack of compassion, to me, was shocking and I vowed to never let that happen again.” He said that he is “very thankful” that Whitten-Grigsby came to volunteer for PRSAR. “Sarah brings emotional and spiritual support first, and critical stress management not only for the family but also for the searchers if they start to have emotional stress.”

But people aren’t the only ones who suffer when a search ends tragically. “As the dogs mature into their roles as searchers, they feel the same loss and pain the rest of us do,” Hadsell said. “It is important that the handlers not only learn to manage their feelings but also watch their K9 for signs of depression or severe stress.”

Compassion for the missing is palpable as one talks with Hadsell and Whitten-Grigsby. “One of the difficult aspects of Search and Rescue is how the team, usually never having met the missing person, comes to feel as if we know the missing person, through talking with loved ones and learning everything we can from law enforcement and loved ones before a search. So, the confirmed loss of a missing person – finding her or him deceased – is more painful for the searchers than one might think. Like all those who have experienced or witnessed trauma, searchers can suffer PTSD, grief and depression. PRSAR is a fairly close-knit family, and we help each other through our sorrow.”

About the Dogs

When you think of K9s, you likely think of German shepherds. But this is not always the case, as search and rescue dogs come in many shapes and sizes. “Any breed of dog can do this work,” Hadsell related. “We have Chihuahuas, fox terriers up to Dobermans, American Staffordshire terriers and spaniels. It’s all about the size of the hunt in the dog and if they want to work.” Ninety percent of the success of the K9 job is “having the right dog for the job.”

Whitten-Grigsby said that the rescue dogs “thrive on having a job.” She said that German shepherds, for example, are working dogs, which is why a lot of K9 dogs are shepherds or shepherd mixes. But don’t discount the smaller pooches! She added that the group’s terrier mix that is the size of a Jack Russell terrier, “is an excellent tracker.” When he first showed up, “people laughed,” she said. They weren’t being unkind; it was just a bit startling to see such a cute and small dog mingle with the big ones. That smaller dog turned out to be one of the best trackers, she said somewhat proudly. A cocker spaniel in the group is also a very good tracker, she added. And one handler has not one, but three dogs – Dobermans – that are being trained at various levels for their certifications.

Both male and female dogs are used in tracking, Hadsell said. “Police like males because of size, power and aggression. However, we found that females are much better at the scent work and SAR functions.” And it is the canines’ incredible sense of smell and ability to work alongside humans that sets them apart from all other creatures.

Whitten-Grigsby put it this way: “When we come into a kitchen and there is beef stew cooking on the stove, we can smell beef stew. But a dog will smell the beef, carrots, celery, onions and other ingredients.”

According to the PBS show NOVA’s website, dogs possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in humans. The part of the dog’s brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than ours. Dogs’ noses also function quite differently than our own. For more facts and to learn more about the different types of dogs used in tracking and various methods, plus the history of using dogs to track, go to www.prsar.org. Horses have not (yet) been trained to track, Hadsell said, adding that it “may be possible.”

Horses do, however, learn to react to human odor when present in the area they are searching, and they can be a valuable source of information to the rider if a person is in their area.

Technology & SAR

The new technology employed by PRSAR helps both humans and dogs, “making recoveries quicker and safer for everyone involved,” according to Hadsell. The GPS trackers for both the K9 and humans, for instance, “report back to the command trailer in real time where the information is populated on the search manager’s video monitor. This gives us an instant look at where the searchers are, how well they have covered an area and allows us to re-task search areas faster than before,” he continued. “In the past, we had to wait for the searcher to come back in, go through debriefing and then re-task. Hours are being saved here.”

Besides GPS technology, drones are also used by PRSAR. “The drones have two mission roles – search and safety. In the safety role, the drones are our first out-searcher. They can digitally map an area quickly, taking sometimes more than 2,000 images,” Hadsell explained. “These images are then made into a large composite photo that is then overlaid onto the search manager’s display map. Now he has a real time look at exactly the terrain out there. From there, the images are then sent to image processing where our proprietary image recognition software scans all the images and kicks out the images that have a target image (missing person) in them. That image is geo-tagged and we now know exactly where that location is so we can then task our Jeep or bike units to get there and see if that is our missing person.”

For other missions, “the drones can be sent to fly along trails and routes to patrol these areas for as long as we can,” Hadsell said. “The usual flight time for the drone is 30 minutes with a second drone on the launcher ready to go when that one returns. These drones provide live video feed, which comes back to the command trailer and is monitored on one of the trailer’s video monitors and if someone is spotted, a team is directed that way.”

The last function is the recon or overflight mission. In remote wilderness areas, the teams – both human and animals – run into water areas or marshes that they can’t see into, Hadsell said. “Before heading in they can request an air mission. From there we will program the drone to overfly the marsh area. When the drone arrives, the SAR team can monitor the live video feed on their phone or other portable monitor and see what is there. We have actually had a video of a team on one side of a high grass marsh and three alligators hanging out on the other side not more than 100 feet away,” he said, continuing what is an understatement. “A serious situation was avoided by using this technology.”

Donate or Volunteer

Since Peace River K9 Search and Rescue is a nonprofit organization, its funding comes from private donations. “We have been given large donations from Firehouse Subs, Charlotte Community Foundation and the Giving Challenge,” Hadsell said. “Outside of that we pretty much are always doing fundraising in one form or another.”

Volunteers provide their time and animals, plus their gear and other equipment. “PRSAR has the command trailer, a boat and jet ski along with two mountain bikes. The rest is supplied by the volunteers, who are wonderful at making their vehicles available,” Hadsell said, adding that PRSAR is currently fundraising to buy its own side-by-side UTV Polaris which, he said, “is terribly needed by PRSAR for getting teams in and out of the search areas.”

Hadsell said that anyone can volunteer for PRSAR. “They can work as a radio operator, K9 flanker, search specialist, diver, boat driver or drone pilot. They just need to come out and put in the time to learn how to do this correctly and professionally. The training is free,” he said.

Training is conducted at Myakka State Park and on an Englewood field, and the urban search training is conducted on Dearborn Street in Englewood, for a total of two to three times a week. Depending on the type of team the handler and animal would eventually join, training is targeted to help the human/animal duo achieve the proper certification for the particular function.

As in the case of Nixie, Hadsell’s dog, some dogs can track through water. K9s on the Water Recovery Team, for instance, remain on the boat while the human members use 2D technology and sonar to find lost people in the water. This team works in conjunction with the Dive Team. The K9 Corps itself consists of the K9 and handler tracking the living or dead human remains.

Learn more by visiting www.prsar.org. And if you can’t volunteer your time, services or equipment, consider helping in another way by participating in the Save Our Pets Program. If you have a beloved pet, you can help your furry friend and PRSAR by donating $3 and receiving a sticker to put on your home, letting rescue personnel know that your pets are inside. In the case of a fire, flood or evacuation, this could mean the difference between life or death for your furry companions.

For an emergency call out, call (941) 548-7560. To make a donation, visit www.prsar.org, or mail your check made out to Peace River K9 Search and Rescue, 9306 Prospect Ave., Englewood, FL 34224.

Peace River K9 Search and Rescue is an active group. In the last two years it has had 44 deployments all across the southeastern United States.

“When he first showed up, people laughed. They weren’t being unkind; it was just a bit startling to see such a cute and small dog mingle with the big ones. That smaller dog turned out to be one of the best trackers.”

FACTS ABOUT MISSING PERSONS

1. Every 40 seconds a child goes missing in the US.

2. When a child goes missing, the first three hours are the most crucial in finding the child safely. Approximately 76.2 percent of abducted children who are murdered are dead within three hours of the abduction.

3. It can take more than two hours to get information about a missing child from a panicked parent.

4. Every year, more than 800,000 children are missing in the US. A person can be declared dead in absentia or “legally dead” after seven years of being listed as missing. This time can be reduced in certain cases, such as in mass disasters (e.g., Sept 11, 2001) or major battles.

5. In 1980, roughly 150,000 people were reported missing per year. Now the number is 900,000.

6. Approximately 2,300 Americans are reported missing every day. This includes both children and adults. This does not include Americans who have vanished in other countries, individuals who disappear and are never reported, or the homeless and their children.

7. In the mid-1980s, milk cartons with photos of missing children on them made their debut. The first child to appear on one of those milk cartons was Etan Patz, a 6-year-old from New York who disappeared walking to the bus stop in May 1975. He has never been found. However, in 2012, a man named Pedro Hernandez confessed to killing him.

8. Minorities, those who suffer from mental disorders and substance abusers who go missing often receive little attention from authorities and little sympathy from the press or public.

9. In most jurisdictions, missing persons cases receive low priority. Authorities are already working homicides, robberies, rapes, assaults, traffic issues and crime prevention.

10. Most of the Indian Ocean tsunami victims in 2004 were identified thought DNA extracted from molars. Since teeth are one of the hardest and most indestructible substances in the human body, they are likely to survive trauma. They are also a good source of DNA if there have been no dental fillings, root canals, etc.

11. Forensic artists use techniques such as age progression to help locate missing persons. A forensic artist must have knowledge about how the face changes as it grows older, such as what sags and what expands. Having a picture of the biological parents also helps construct an accurate age progression photo. Usually, a child must be 1 to 18 months old and missing for at least two years before he or she can be age progressed.

12. Medical examiners and coroner’s offices in the US. Hold more than 40,000 sets of unidentified remains. That number is large enough to represent a small city.

13. There are as many as 100,000 active missing persons cases in the US. At any given time.

14. Of the 692,944 people reported missing in 2010, 531,928 were under the age of 18.

15. According to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), 355,243 women were reported missing in 2010 compared to 337,660 men.

Read the full article at http://trendmag2.trendoffset.com/article/Four-Footed+Heroes/2834518/424397/article.html.

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