Youíve been called to the scene of a tornado search.

Searching for live and dead victims in the aftermath of a tornado thatís hit a residential neighborhood.

Where do you start?
Like in any disaster response, first obtain written authorization to respond. Find out where the forward base camp or command post, also known as a staging area is going to be located.

Once you arrive at the cp or staging area, you need to check in, obtain passes into the restricted zones. Obtain your SAR instructions, which should be in writing on what your assigned search area is going to be.

You also need to ask what are the risk factors involved? Hazmat, broken glass, power lines. Is the power turned off? Exposed ruptured gas leaks. Is the gas turned off? Looting and security risks, etc. Then make a decision on whether you are still going to respond. If the risk is too great, back off and donít go in. Itís not worth it.

Example; We were all set to go to Japan for the March 11, 2011 9.0 earthquake. When I checked in with the DOD, before our teams were to respond, I found out the US Navy was pulling out because of the nuclear fallout threat danger, I did a risk assessment and contacted all of our response teams and canceled our response to Japan.

Itís not worth risking my search dogs, handlers and support teams to search for dead human remains. The risk factor was way to high.

Once you as the SAR Coordinator, dog handler have made the decision to go in, work the assigned area slowly.

Put your dog on a down stay and or hand your search dog to another dog handler while one of you walks through the search area without the SAR dog. Your job is to look for any exposed hot electrical wires, which can burn or kill you and your dog teams.

You will look for any HAZMAT areas to avoid. Broken shards of glass, sharp pieces of metal, nails sticking up right, roving packs of dogs, people, spilled antifreeze, fuel leaks, bleach, etc.

Once youíre determine it is safe, draw a diagram of your search area. (rubble pile). And determine which direction the wind is coming from. Next, one search dog team at a time should search the assigned area in a slow methodical grid air scent search.

Note your dogs live and death alerts. If you get a live alert. Stop, mark the location, and call in for rescue support teams to start their digging.

If you get a death alert, stop, mark the location with flagging, or spray paint, note location, date, time, GPS coordinates, then continue with your search.

If you find a vehicle, make sure you look inside for victims.

Once youíre done with your assigned search area, bring in your second search dog team to confirm your findings. As soon as youíre done searching, remove yourself and your search dog immediately out of the rubble pile and check your dogís pads, legs, paws, nose, eyes, ears, body for cuts, etc.

Remember if all you are finding is dead body after dead body, your dog will become depressed. After youíve cleaned your dog and yourself, your gear from any hazardous fluids, powders, etc. Find a safe area and have your dog work three or four quick runaways with some of the local search and rescue volunteer staff, nurses, doctors, paramedics, or local kids out of the restricted zone.

This will cheer your dog up as well as the victims hiding for your dog.

Once youíve debriefed the CP on your findings, get some rest and then go to your next assignment. Donít push yourself if you are stressed and tired. Youíll be no good to anyone if you get your search dog or yourself injured or killed.

Take photos. Be discreet. If the family is right there and youíre taking photos of their dead loved ones, I suggest you tell them what you are doing and inform them on why you need to take photos.

Iíve told family members in disasters, ďIím taking a photo to document the location, date, time, and position of your dead family member for legal purposesĒ.

Be respectful. I will then try to find something from the rubble site to cover up the body. A sheet, towel, shower curtain, even a newspaper to cover the victimís face or head.

If the family insists you help them dig their loved one out, tell them, ďIím sorry I will help you or send someone to help you as soon as possible. My assignment is to try to find as many live victims in the area first. Then weíll send in a recovery team after weíre done with the live victim searchesĒ.

Most families are understanding. Some may yell at you, curse you, and throw stuff at you and or your search dog. Protect yourselves. Donít take it personally. These families are grieving.

Donít tell them their loved one is dead unless you are 100% sure he / she is dead. I always check a pulse, respirations, as well as the victimís pupils for a response. Then I note the date, time, location and my findings.

Mark the location and move on. If they are alive then focus on getting rescue teams in right away. If you are the only search team in the area, then your focus is to help save this one person. If you can, find someone else to stay with the live victim so you can continue your search.

If the destruction is due to a tornado, make sure you look at the path of destruction. The tornado will have winds that may exceed 500 Mph. This can pick up a human and toss them into buildings, debris piles, fields, up into trees, miles away from the path of destruction.

The search coordinator should assign support teams to search a 5 mile path on both sides of the debris path and when a pile of debris is found up against a building, bridge, in a field, bring in a min. of two search dog teams and double check the pile for human remains live and dead.

If you find an injured pet, donít just leave it. If you can, mark the location, help it out, without getting bit, and rescue it. If you must continue your search efforts, mark the location, and make sure you notify the CP in your debriefing that this pet needs rescuing. The CP should have specialist trained in animal rescue that will respond right away to rescue and or recover the pet. Same goes to livestock that you find.

When youíre done with your efforts, make sure you obtain critical incident stress management debriefings.

Mr. Harry E. Oakes Jr.
International K9 Search and Rescue Instructor.

Disaster SAR Coordinator.