In order to be deployable to disasters like Haiti or Hurricane Katrina, canine and handler must pass two tests. The first is the Fundamental Skills Assessment (FSA). This is done locally and includes agility, directional control, basic obedience and a short two victim search. The second is the Certification Evaluation, and it’s put on by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Canine Evaluators from across the country.
The FEMA test is two piles. Because disasters happen anywhere, the piles can be wood, concrete, brush or a junkyard. Buried in the piles there are anywhere from four to six victims, with clothing and food distractions to ensure dogs alert only on live human scent. The dog and the handler have twenty minutes to search each pile. The handler doesn’t know where the victims are placed, and the piles are closed to testing canine teams thirty days before the CE.
In a couple of weeks, Kinsey and I, and Rook and Tim, will fly to Indiana to take our CE. Dogs must be tested every three years to remain certified. For Kinsey, it’s a re-cert, for Rook it’s his first test.
Below is video of a training we held back in September to help handlers from Las Vegas Task Force 1 prepare for a test in Sacramento, CA. This gives you some idea of how we train, and what we expect the dogs to be able to do.
Kinsey tested the first time in Phoenix, Arizona when she was two years, five months old. Our first pile was rubble, with pieces of cars and an airplane mixed in. It was limited access, meaning I had to stand in a rectangle marked out in the cement, send Kinsey up to search, and then stay in my box until she barked. Her first alert didn’t happen until nine minutes had elapsed. NINE MINUTES! We only had twenty minutes for the entire pile! That’s nearly half the allotted time! I thought we were going to fail! Once she finally had an alert, I bolted up and marked victim number one. (I didn’t find out until later, but she’d spent quite a bit of time on the pile sniffing the food distraction and then doing her business.) In the next nine minutes she ran across the pile with enthusiasm and found two more victims. Pile one, done.
The second pile was a junkyard with old cars, a bus and various large containers. On this pile I had full access, which meant I could walk with Kinsey. I sent her out and let her take the lead. She alerted halfway through the junkyard at a small school bus, just about the time I started to worry she wouldn’t find anyone. I flagged the victim and sent Kinsey off. After we completed the initial sweep, we went around again. This time I gave her more direction, pointed to each vehicle or container and told her to “search.” When she found victim number five, I called the test. Pile two, done.
Test over, I had nothing to do but wait. The evaluators do not tell you if you pass until the last team runs. I watched a lot of dogs while I waited, and even when they alerted in the same spots as Kinsey time and again, I couldn’t quite believe I’d passed. I went into a large conference room after the final dog, sat down, and heard my name called. I stared at my certificate. It amazed me. We’d passed.
In a couple of weeks, when we go to Indiana to re-certify, I want to pass, badly. So, I obsess. I can’t sleep. I imagine every possible thing that could go wrong. Lucky for me, I have a dog with no worries and lots of enthusiasm. For her, it will simply be another day of hide and seek.
I’ll let you know how the test goes. Deep yoga breathing required…