In Part 3 of our series on Essex Fire-fighter and urban search and rescue dog handler John Ball and his search and rescue dog Darcy we travel with them to Nepal.
Speaking about the pair’s deployment in April 2015 to Nepal following the devastating Kathmandu earthquake. John explained they were deployed to search for casualties buried in rubble left in the wake of the disaster. “The dogs are there to search areas where there’s a complete or partial building collapse. It’s harder to find the casualties trapped in what are called deep seated voids especially if they are unconscious or weakened”. The team usually work downwind so that the air brings the scent towards them, this makes it easier for the dogs to detect casualties. John has a special container that releases powder to show wind direction.
In rescue deployments such as Nepal, a small team known as a ‘recce team’ will conduct an initial assessment of their assigned search area. Preferable this will include a dog such as Darcy. John describes in more detail the importance of a dog during this phase of the rescue mission. “The dog is a very important part of the recce team. With a dog you can search large areas quickly and if you get an indication this will generally be confirmed with a second dog. A lot of resources will be put into that specific rescue so you’ll need to make sure that the indications on a casualty are correct”.
The time delay between incidents such as the Kathmandu earthquake happening and a rescue team from the UK arriving on scene can be as little as 24 to 48 hours. Generally teams have to wait for the affected nation’s government to assess the situation and make a call for international help. Once the UK agree assistance, the team can make ready to fly out to the rescue zone. The full UK team is classified an INSARAG heavy team of around 65 people with 11 tonnes of equipment, so logistics are big and response time impressive. However John says “The delay in waiting to fly out to a disaster can be frustrating. Time is of the essence for survival”
When it comes to survival time for casualties it’s normally around 72 hours potentially longer depending on environmental factors. To appreciate how crucial response times are for a rescue mission like Nepal to rescue dogs, John produces a chart showing human survival rates after a structural collapse; it ranges from a 91.0% chance after 30 minutes to 7.4% after 5 days.
For this rescue mission the team and equipment were flown out to Nepal in a chartered plane. Kathmandu airport is small by international standards with space for only 6 large planes on the ground at the same time. With a lot of planes arriving carrying international aid following the natural disaster, the plane carrying John and Darcy was put into a holding pattern, became low on fuel and was diverted to Delhi for re-fuelling. This meant an unavoidable and potentially critical delay in India due to the pilot’s flight-time restrictions.
However, Darcy along with other search dogs diverted in India, were seen as such a vital part of the rescue mission, they and a small advanced recce team were flown straight away from Delhi arriving in Nepal a day and half before the rest of the team.
Search and rescue dogs like Darcy are a great asset because of their life-saving potential. But she and the others also provide comfort too. John smiles, “Dogs are great especially when you’ve been working all day in harsh conditions, she really helped to de-stress both me and others in the team”
Standing outside the training building, one of John’s colleagues pets Darcy affectionately on the head. He then perfectly sums up just why she is so important; “As a rescue team, we can do everything a dog can do and we have the equipment to do it. But we’re just so much slower than a dog.” And with that, Darcy proudly wags her tail.
By Hanna Barten