For many people, dogs are life-savers. They keep you busy, provide a source of love and comfort, are always happy to see you, and sometimes allow you to keep your sanity. However, DOE JGI Project Management Office Group Leader Tootie Tatum’s dogs actually save lives.
During the workday, Tootie can be found overseeing the group that tracks and manages the countless number of projects that make their way through the DOE JGI. But in her spare time, she works as a Canine Search Specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s California Task Force Three, an emergency response team based out of Menlo Park that employs the use of search dogs to find survivors after any disaster imaginable.
Tootie always loved dogs, and began training them for search and rescue as a graduate student in 1998 with New Mexico Task Force One in Albuquerque. After she moved to Texas in 2002, she found the commute difficult to keep up with her search dog training, and left the New Mexico Task Force in 2004. She then worked with the Lubbock County Sherriff to train police dogs, until she moved to the Bay Area.
Tootie’s Border Collie Moose trained for almost five years to achieve his current status as a search and rescue canine certified by FEMA. He achieved the highest certification awarded by FEMA on June 9, 2013. There are currently fewer than 250 search dogs nationwide that are trained and certified for these search and rescue missions, divided among 28 teams. There are three FEMA Task Forces in the Bay Area, with seven total in California. Each dog must complete a certification evaluation at the end of his training period, which entails finding 4-6 hidden victims in a simulated disaster scene with many factors designed to throw the dog off the scent of a live person in need of help.
“You don’t want to waste fire fighter or other rescuer resources digging up something that isn’t a live person,” Tootie explained about the difficult certification process, “so the dogs must be able to self-discriminate and ignore distractions like food or human remains.” Once a dog is certified, the dog and handler are placed in a rotation system FEMA uses to deploy response teams to disaster sites nationwide, such as tornado or hurricane wreckage, building collapses, terrorist attacks and other mass disasters where there could be concealed survivors. When surveying such sites,these dogs must be able to sniff out any survivors, at which point they would alert their handler as to the location of anyone that might be concealed in the wreckage.
An urban search and rescue dog can locate a victim in 15 minutes where it might take a team of 20 firefighters hours or days – precious minutes when victims are buried, injured and potentially unconscious. They are an invaluable resource in disaster search operations, but not just any dog can be trained for search and rescue.
“Our dogs have to be able to work around concrete saws, jackhammers, extrication tools, people walking around carrying out other jobs at the same time – there are always fire engines, backhoes and other heavy equipment moving around nearby – it’s very chaotic,” Tootie said of urban disaster sites. “By definition it’s a really harsh environment. People may be screaming, crying, upset, it’s just a stressful environment to be in, and it takes a certain kind of dog to be able to focus on their job and ignore all distractions for days on end. You’re usually talking about responding in an area with no electricity or fresh water and often heavily damaged infrastructure.”
It takes a dog with exceptional stamina to do this job. The majority of FEMA teams are Border Collies, Labs, German Shepherds, and Belgian Malinois. Border Collies make great search dogs because they are what are often referred to as “high drive” dogs that want to work. These dogs are natural athletes that can maneuver around a disaster zone, climb fire ladders into the second story of buildings, rappel from high places and navigate unstable surfaces at great heights. Raising a search dog is no cheap matter though, as Tootie estimates she’s spent around $80,000 thus far on Moose alone to train and take care of him.
Moose is Tootie’s second personally-trained disaster dog, and one of the three Border Collies she currently calls her pets. Phoenix, who will eventually be Moose’s replacement on Task Force Three, is currently in training. Bob, her third Border Collie, stands back from the rescue dog life and acts as the other two dogs’ “cheerleader.” Much of Tootie’s free time is dedicated to training these dogs, where she spends one day every weekend at a simulated disaster zone with other Task Force canine teams, and about five more hours a week training her dogs on her own time.
In addition, as a handler and Task Force member Tootie is trained in trench rescue, swift-water rescue, professional rescue first aid and CPR, GPS navigation, ropes rescue, first-responder HazMat and weapons of mass destruction operations and confined space operations. “It’s a good thing I like hanging out with firefighters because that’s where I spend all of my free time,” she says. “It takes a lot to stay current on your training and proficient at your job as a Task Force member. You’ve got to be ready 24 hours a day.”
Dogs that are capable of doing what Moose does are few andfar between, but their worth is nothing short of priceless, and Tootie Tatum helps make sure that man’s best friend is there when man needs help the most.