Handler and Canine Deployment Survey

September 11, 2013

Lori E. Gordon, DVM



This is the fifth in a series of reports based on data collected from Handler and Canine Deployment Surveys sent by the author to deployed Handlers. The main purpose is to reveal canine injury and illness data. Additional information on transportation, shifts, finds, decontamination, and HazMat encounters is also included. Prior survey data is available upon request from the Moore, OK Tornado of 2013, Hurricane Sandy of 2012, Joplin, MO Tornado of 2011, and the Haiti Earthquake of 2010.

The value lies in documentation of real life events in order to affect policy in a manner as to improve the system and create best practices. These include cache items, relevant training, preventative measures, and pro-active planning for missions that range widely in their scope of weather, disaster, terrain, and search needs.


Information Collection

The survey was sent out electronically to all handlers within the FEMA US&R system that were deployed in response to the flooding event in Colorado. A copy of the survey is available from the author upon request. Federally deployed teams included NE-TF 1, UT-TF 1, MO-TF 1, and NV-TF 1. CO-TF 1, deployed as a state asset, was also included.

Data included handler and canine experience, canine signalment (age, breed, gender, weight), search capabilities and qualifications (Live Find and Human Remain Detection),  transportation and billeting, examinations, shifts, search finds, injuries and illnesses, decontamination procedures, briefings, and HazMat encounters.

All information is confidential, and anonymity assured so as to invite frank but constructive comments and recommendations at the end of the survey.


Brief History

During the week of September 9, 2013, a slow-moving cold front stalled over Colorado, clashing with warm humid monsoonal air from the south. This resulted in heavy rain and catastrophic flooding along Colorado’s Front Range from Colorado Springs north to Fort Collins. The situation intensified on September 11 and 12. Boulder County was worst hit, with 9.08 inches (231 mm) recorded September 12 and up to 17 inches (430 mm) of rain recorded by September 15, which is comparable to Boulder County’s average annual precipitation (20.7 inches, 525 mm).

The flood waters spread across a range of almost 200 miles (320 km) from north to south, affecting 17 counties. Governor John Hickenlooper declared a disaster emergency on September 13, 2013, in 14 counties: Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Boulder, Denver, El Paso, Fremont, Jefferson, Larimer, Logan, Morgan, Pueblo, Washington and Weld. By September 15, federal emergency declarations covered those 14 counties as well as Clear Creek County. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_Colorado_floods


Significant Data Summary, Comments, Recommendations

Survey response was 92%, giving the data high validity. Also, the surveys were collected within six weeks of demobilization, increasing the accuracy of responses.

The majority of both handlers (68%) and canines (70%) had deployed before, with an average length of handler team service of 7 years. Labrador Retrievers are again the majority of breed represented, which reflects the national majority breed as well. They averaged 5 years 7 months of age, and all were spayed or neutered.

Live find search capabilities were complimented by 2 cross-trained and one dedicated HRD canines. There were no survey documented live finds, and 1 HR find.


One handler-stated issue described a 2-day delay in using Live Find canines in the field, and another thought the canines could have been used more effectively. Operations issues may have been a factor, as well as transportation and safety. Local authorities may not be as well informed or experienced in the use of search canines as part of the operational missions. Task Force personnel may also be unaware how to best deploy the use of HRD canines, especially as this is a new aspect of search capabilities within the FEMA system.


HRD canines have been deployed officially since the May 2013 Moore, OK Tornado, and an increased need over the 3 deployed here was an issue for another observer. Search and rescue remains the primary mission as first responders. Additional resources, such as HRD canines, may be added as deemed necessary for the missions.

No transportation issues were reported, despite an average mobilization transit time of 14 hours, and demobilization transit average of 17 hours. All canines transported with their handlers, as well as billeted together. Nearly half were crated, a third free in the tent or trailer, and the rest a mix of crated and free.


Although not always possible, one handler commented that allowing handlers and canines a separate area to sleep allowed for dogs to relax and people to sleep. Care and consideration for the canine team members was appreciated by the handlers.

Bases of Operation were established and also served as a place for Veterinary medical stations to be established as well as a center for local traveling veterinarians to visit and offer assistance.

The FEMA mandated pre-mission veterinary physical examinations were performed for all federally deployed canines, and for none of the state deployed canines. The handlers performed the majority of shift examinations, and though 65% received no demobilization examination 70% received a post-deployment veterinary examination once home.


Education in the care and treatment of search canines by handlers, medics, doctors and veterinarians has proven essential in preventing serious conditions to develop, such as the early recognition of dehydration and prompt treatment.


If operations are at a considerable distance from a veterinary medical station, stationing a veterinarian deployed with their team, or the IST veterinarian (if deployed), at a forward position or BoO with a mobile K9 medical pack should be considered in the plan for operations.

Veterinary support was available in several forms:  a DVM deployed with one team, Veterinary Reserve Corps in operation, and local veterinary visits to teams. There was one report of canine medical supplies unable to be located and multiple requests for veterinary support before that was accomplished.


A review of the Incident Action Plans for the Rocky Mountain IMT and the Boulder County Flood Rocky Mountain IMT2-B revealed no information concerning veterinary hospital availability in the Medical Plan. 


Emergency Veterinary Hospital information should be a standard part of every IAP Medical Plan at deployments where search canines are in theater.

Injuries were minor, and did not interfere with search operations. Illnesses, of which dehydration was the most concern, were recognized early and treated appropriately so that no canine was  required to stop search operations. A possible snake strike was of most concern.


Several handler comments, included at the end of this report, state the advantage and appreciation for veterinary care, as well as others where this was lacking but requested. The possible snake strike was of particular concern.


Snake strike injury education, especially for medical and handler personnel unfamiliar with this injury, is recommended.

An average of 4 shifts for handlers with their canine, for an average of 9 hours per shift, were conducted over an average of 7 days on site. Half of the handlers had 1-4 shifts without their canine. The military provided a variety of transports, including helicopters. There were no reported canine issues with land transport or flights.

Decontamination was performed at some point for 96% of the canines. Several handlers mentioned decontamination was not needed for every shift. Soap, cold water, and towel drying were most common. Simple Green was also used for 2 canines. Many persons helped the handlers with the process – TF members, fire fighters, and HazMat.


A review of the Incident Action Plans for the Rocky Mountain IMT and the Boulder County Flood Rocky Mountain IMT2-B revealed no information concerning decontamination procedures for search canines. Simple Green is not approved for use on live tissue.


Decontamination procedures relevant to canines should be a standard part of every IAP HazMat Plan at deployments where search canines are in theater.


Decontamination is a recognized safety protocol for canines. Increased awareness and additions to the cache list have contributed to awareness and use in the field.


Simple Green is not approved for use on people or animals. Use of this product as a decontamination solution for canines cannot be officially recommended at this time. Several other approved products, both commercial and military, are available. At the very least, proper dilution, copious rinsing, and complete drying are needed to minimize any potential contact or ingestion-related illness.


Until Simple Green is evaluated by the medical and HazMat group for safety as a decontamination product for dogs, it should not be used in such a manner.


Half of the handlers recalled receiving HazMat and safety briefings specific to canine issues. Stated issues of concern recalled from memory that were actually encountered included swift water, snakes, mountain lions, sewer-contaminated water, sharp objects (cacti). In addition, gas and propane leaks, fuel and oil pools were encountered.


When deploying to an unfamiliar area, local hazards are an important part of briefing, and relevant information can be passed on to the next shift or another team through daily reports. In this and prior reports, canine-specific hazards are recalled by the handlers less than half the time. This may be due to a recall lapse, or information being passed on informally.




Search K9 Phoenix and members from MO-TF 1 and NV-TF 1 along Big Thompson River. Photo courtesy Handler E. Chamberlain





Colorado Flood Data

ESF #9 Advisory Series of Events – Summary

Advisory #1: 09-12-2013 @ 0900

  • Flash floods in Boulder, CO area from rains the day prior
  • CO-TF 1 activated as a state resource

Advisory #2: 09-13-2013 @ 1600

  • Flooding Denver, Boulder metro area; 6-12″ rain past 48 hours; >12″ in Boulder, Colorado Springs
  • White IST activated
  • UT-TF 1 and NE-TF 1 activated as Type I to Boulder Municipal Airport
  • MO-TF 1 and NV-TF 1 on alert
  • Denver MERS providing communications and IST support
  • CO National Guard with Light-Medium Tactical Vehicles for US&R ops in high water

Advisory #3: 09-14-2013 @ 1830

  • CO-TF 1 is state resource operations
  • White IST, UT-TF 1 and NE-TF 1 BoO at Boulder Municipal Airport
  • Type II IMT Operations are in this area

Advisory #4: 09-15-2013 @ 1300

  • Coordination with CO National Guard and DoD for air operations
  • UT-TF 1 and NE-TF 1 flying into 2 valleys for S&R operations
  • MO-TF 1, NV-TF 1 activated last night Type I; both have water ops capabilities and are en route to Larimer County
  • CA-TF 2, TN-TF 1, and FL-TF 2 placed on alert

Advisory #5: 09-16-2013 @ 1400

  • CO-TF 1 engaged as state resource operations in Lyons
  • MO-TF 1 and NV-TF 1 operating in Larimer County, BoO in Loveland
  • UT-TF 1 and NE-TF 1 BoO at Boulder Municipal Airport

Advisory #6: 09-17-2013 @ 1500

  • CO-TF 1 engaged as state resource operations in Lyons
  • UT-TF 1 and NE-TF 1 BoO at Boulder Municipal Airport
  • MO-TF 1, NV-TF 1 operating in Larimer Co, BoO in Loveland
  • CA-TF 2, TN-TF 1, and FL-TF 2 taken off alert status

Advisory #7: 09-18-2013 @ 1600

  • Operations continue with CO-TF 1 state resource in Lyons, UT-TF 1 and NE-TF 1 in Boulder; MO-TF 1 and NV-TF operating in Larimer County, BoO in Loveland

Advisory #8: 09-19-2013 @ 1200

  • UT-TF 1, NE-TF 1, and enhanced portion of White IST demobilized today

Advisory #9: 09-24-2013 @ 0900

  • NV-TF 1 demobilized 09-21-2013; MO-TF 1and  remaining


Handler Informationcolorado2

24 Handlers from 5 FEMA US&R Task Forces deployed with 25 canines.

  • 4 Handlers (5 canines) deployed as state resource with one team
  • 20 Handlers (20 canines) deployed as federal asset with 4 teams

Survey Response

  • 22 of 24 handlers responded to the survey – 92%
  • 23 of 25 canines had data entered – 92%

Deployment Experience

  • Handlers length of team membership ranged 0.5 to 15 years
  • This was first deployment for 7 of 22 surveyed handlers – 32% 15 of the 22 had deployed before – 68%


To read and/or download the rest of the survey click –>here<– get_adobe_reader