Handler and Canine Deployment Survey

Lori E. Gordon, DVM


Summary of Findings

The majority of handlers, (87%), were experienced, having deployed prior to Hurricane Sandy. They had an average of over 9 years on a federal task force.

Regarding search canines, just over half, (58%), were experienced, having deployed prior to this mission. The majority breed was Labrador Retriever (20 canines) comprising 61%. The Belgian Malinois came in a far second (6 canines) at 18%. Almost half (48%) were male, average age 6 years.

Transportation for canines included buses and vans. Some canines were transported in crates, but many were not crated. All task force personnel billeted in a facility (hotel, military barracks, casino), with one report of a night in a tent. Again, canines were either free, leashed, or crated during their down time.

Regarding physical examinations, nearly one fourth (24%, or 8 of 33) of the canines did not receive the mandated pre-mission physical examination by a licensed veterinarian (Program Directive 2011-024). Seven of those 8 canines received no physical examination of any kind at any time before, during, or after the deployment.

Shifts and the work performed varied. The number of times handlers worked a shift varied greatly between task forces, from none to working 8 shifts over the course of the mission. The nature of work also varied, including searches, meet and greet, and humanitarian work. Fifteen handlers did shifts without their canines.

Human remains detection requests were made of 4 handlers, but their canines were all live-find trained. One handler did use her live find canine to perform a search, explaining to the New York authority that an alert would not occur but the canine may exhibit unusual behavior.

Injuries were few, 3 of the 33 canines. Only one of these was serious, and is still being treated 6 weeks later. Illness was also infrequent, 2 of the 33 canines. Both were successfully treated in a timely manner and did not require further follow-up.

Briefings that specifically related canine hazard concerns were not received by more than half (57%, 17 of 30) of the handlers. When received, the hazards included weather-related concerns, standing water contamination, and sand contamination. Contaminants included oil and sewerage. Physical hazards included exposed nails.

Decontamination was performed for every canine that worked. The procedures varied: cold water and soap were most common, water alone, wipes, Simple Green, and 1 warm water. Drying was either with towels or air drying.



Mandated pre-mission examinations were not performed for 8 search canines. The deployment was 4 months after implementation deadline. Recommend follow-up as to why the pre-mission examinations were not obtained so as to ensure these task forces have a procedure in place for the future. 

Canine-specific safety briefings were not received by 17 canine search specialists. Leptospirosis, a zoonotic disease found in standing water and transmissible to animals and humans, is a concern. Vaccination for some strains is available for dogs but is a non-core vaccine not currently required. Recommend a list of canine-specific hazards and concerns be distributed to the IST and all deployed task forces. This list can be made available by the US&R Veterinary Group at the inception of each mission. Recommend add the Leptospirosis vaccine as a requirement for FEMA US&R search canines.

Requests for Human Remains Detection (HRD) canines were made by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). Recommendations are on the table for an HR standard and for a modular deployment process to deploy HRD certified canines as a part of the response for the FEMA US&R system.

One canine experienced a serious paw injury, and was treated by a local veterinarian under heavy sedation or light anesthesia (still awaiting records). There were medical concerns stated by the handler about post-surgical state of the patient and the surgical procedure that was performed. Dr. Gordon did reach out to the IST about her availability to assist if needed, but it is unclear if this information was included in the IST daily reports or filtered to the task force medical personnel. Recommend a process to convey information to the IST about avSandy1ailable deployed FEMA US&R veterinary personnel, including their location and contact information, especially if there is no IST Veterinary Medical Officer deployed.

Decontamination was provided for every canine that worked in the field. This is important to them as well as the team members. There was some concern that the cold water and cold weather could have resulted in hypothermia issues. This was not the case. The cache-approved dryer is large and cumbersome, designed for use at a Base of Operations. Recommend adding or offering as an alternative, a hand-held more portable dryer for use at a forward site.

The use of canines to provide comfort as a humanitarian aid by being available to be seen and touched by the victims of disaster provided stress relief and psychological healing. This is something they do for our team members as well. When they are not searching they are still working, providing comfort to many who lost everything.



Questionnaires benefit  handlers, search canines, medical personnel who treat the canines, and hazmat members who decontaminate them. Whether you are a veterinarian, medic, or handler, training and disaster preparedness begin long before a deployment. Although anything can happen, and we try to prepare for all situations, every deployment is unique. The information gathered from prior missions allows us to concentrate training on the most common illnesses and injuries, streamline the cache needs especially when space and resources are limited, and emphasize preventative measures in an effort to avoid problems before they occur.


Information Collection

A survey was sent out electronically to all handlers that deployed with FEMA US&R teams in response to Hurricane Sandy.  Questions included handler experience, canine signalment (breed, age, gender) and experience, their transportation and billeting, physical examinations performed, work shift information, injuries and illnesses incurred, decontamination procedures, and briefing details. The handlers were invited to give comments, both positive and negative, and make  recommendations to address issues.


Brief History

Hurricane Sandy, the 10th hurricane of the 2012 season, affected the entire eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine and west across the Appalachian Mountains to Michigan and Wisconsin, with

Hurricane Sandy Car

particularly severe damage in New Jersey and New York. Its storm surge hit New York City on October 29, 2012.

President Obama signed emergency declarations on October 28 for several states expected to be impacted by Sandy, allowing them to request federal aid and make additional preparations in

advance of the storm. A total of 9 FEMA US&R Task Forces were deployed. These included IN- TF1, MA-TF1, MD-TF1, MO-TF1, OH-TF1, PA-TF1, TN-TF1, VA-TF1, and VA-TF2. Among them were the Canine Search Specialists, 41 Handlers with 44 canines.


Definitions for Reference

Mean = the average;  the numbers are added and then divide by the number of numbers

Median =  the middle value in the list of numbers

Mode = the value that occurs most often; if no number is repeated, there is no mode for the list.

Range = is the difference between the largest and smallest values


Handler Information

41 Handlers were deployed on 9 FEMA US&R Teams.Hurricane Sandy Years on Team

  • 30 of the 41 handlers (73%) responded to the survey, including 3 handlers that each deployed with 2 canines
  • This was first deployment for 4 of the 30 survey responders (13%)
  • Range of years on the deployed team was 1 to 20 years
  • Mean = 9.3 years
  • Median = 9 years
  • Mode = 10 years



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