As I looked out over the debris field I had a sense of how heart wrenching the whole experience was, yet I found the scene one of inspiration and hope. There were literally hundreds of people working in unison with one purpose in mind, to save lives and bring closure for all the families and friends of OSO. It was in some strange way a tranquil image and I had the sense that “now I know why I have been doing K9 search and rescue for the last 13 years, this is what I was supposed to do all along .” Suzanne Elshult, SCVSAR/K9 Handler and Airscent Facilitator
On March 22, 2014 a catastrophic failure of the hillside above the small community just east of OSO in my home county of Snohomish caused almost 10 million cubic yards of dirt to plunge down and across the Stillaguamish river. A fast-moving wave of mud and trees ended up taking 43 precious lives and became a life-changing event for me, my search and rescue dog Keb and many of my K9 colleagues. Over the last several months 80 plus volunteer SAR K9 teams from seven different states have deployed as volunteer first responders. This event was and still is a tragedy of epic proportions and our hearts go out to the families that have been left behind. We can only hope that our participation has contributed a small measure of comfort. This is how one of my K9 colleagues summarized our team experience:
For the Snohomish County Search and Rescue K9 Team, it was the worst of times and the best of times. We were shocked by the devastation and loss; we were energized and gratified by our participation. We saved no one, but recovered a measure of comfort for families left behind. We learned and grew as a team, and were humbled by thanks from our community.
Guy Mansfield, SCVSAR K9 Field Support
Over the last several weeks I have been reflecting on what it is that allowed us as a team to provide a uniquely supportive environment for each other and to come together seamlessly and effectively to do what we train to do every weekend together, the one word that stands out for me is “culture.” Yes, we have a professional training and certification program. Yes, we are a very technology savvy group which importantly helps us be effective and deploy very quickly and cohesively on missions. But, at the core of our effectiveness lies our culture which we have very deliberately shaped over the last 8 years following a period of dysfunction as a group. Our formula for success may not be for every K9 team, but here are some of the pillars that are critically important to us:
- Our team is not led by a small group of experts. In our world we are all equals, differentiated only by time in search and rescue. We all bring unique talent to the table. Everybody is expected to step up and contribute in whatever way they can. As a result we have a vibrant organization with many initiatives underway all the time.
- We emphasize individual accountability. We don’t have a designated “trainer expert.” We are all volunteers. Newer handlers and field support are responsible for making sure their individual development needs are met and senior members are willing and ready to “mentor” those who step forward.
- We place value on different styles and needs. While we have standards there is a common acceptance of the fact that different people and K9s can achieve the same outcome differently. We avoid being categorical and seeing the world as “black and white.”
- We have zero tolerance of behaviors that are counter to “team” and expect transparency. We talk in terms of “us” and “we.” For example, successful finds on missions are celebrated as a team effort. The contribution of teams clearing areas is equal to the team that happened to be assigned to an area where a subject is found.
- Our avocation is a lifestyle and our K9 partners and colleagues are part of our extended family. We spend a lot of time together-often ten to fifteen hours a week-so while K9 search and rescue is serious business we are also serious about having fun learning and training together.
We continue to deal with the aftermath of our deployment on the OSO landslide as a team. In the weeks and months to come we will continue to funnel our energies constructively to working with the larger K9 community to explore “lessons learnt”. We have done research, surveyed and hosted discussions with K9 teams that deployed from 6 states and Canada. We want to make sure we carry forward all we learnt from this experience. We are capturing all we learnt together with other teams, writing articles and reports and establishing forums for the K9 community engage face-to-face and online.We are dedicated and committed to being on the “ready” when and if another disaster strikes.
I am proud of my team and honored we were able to contribute to some resolution for families left behind.
Please follow the links below to get a better understanding of what we experienced as a team.
1. This video is a labor of love by my K9 Team and our experience of the HW 530 deployment experience. You may need to scroll to the video titled 530 Slide Show: http://scvsark9.org/K9Videos.aspx
This article was just published in the Mountaineers Magazine and features several members including myself and Keb on our Mountain Rescue and K9 Teams. See page 28: Faces Behind the Rescue: https://www.mountaineers.org/mountaineer-magazine/2014/july-aug-2014
3. I started publishing this Flipboard Magazine last year and it already has a large following. You will find a variety of articles pertainin primarily to K9 Search and Rescue and most recently all articels I have been able to find describing the K9 effort on the OSO/HW 530 Slide: http://flip.it/IuA8b
If you (and your dog) would like to find out more about how to get involved in K9 search and rescue, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. To donate, send a check to SCVSAR, Attn: K9 Team, 5506 Machias Rd, Snohomish, WA 98290. Or click on the Paypal link at www.scvsar.org and specify that you want your donations to go to the K9 team.