International Search & Rescue – Part 1


UK-ISAR is the UK branch of the International Search and Rescue organisation. A collection of rescue resources supported by respective governments who are deployed across the globe in response to disasters and natural catastrophes. These international teams are quick response highly skilled and have the most advanced equipment available to help save lives and support local relief and rescue efforts.

And crucial to these teams are the specially trained search and rescue dogs. The UK currently has 21 search and rescue dogs only twelve of which are qualified as International search dog teams. We were lucky enough to catch-up with one of these teams based in Essex with the region’s Fire and Rescue service.

Essex Fire-fighter and USAR (Urban search and rescue) dog handler John Ball with his ISAR-search and rescue dog Darcy.
Essex Fire-fighter and USAR (Urban search and rescue) dog handler John Ball with his ISAR-search and rescue dog Darcy.

Essex Fire-fighter and USAR (Urban search and rescue) dog handler John Ball has a long and successful working partnership with his ISAR-search and rescue dog Darcy. In the many years of working together, they’ve been deployed to Indonesia and Nepal on rescue missions as well as working alongside local fire and rescue crews within Essex. Darcy is an air-scenting dog and is specifically trained to search for live casualties in the aftermath of disasters like earthquakes.

Darcy is a border collie alert and playful perfectly exhibiting all the typical qualities of the breed. Being John’s pet as well as his faithful working dog, she was selected at eight weeks old and brought home at ten weeks. Despite being relatively new to dog training when he began in 2004. John knew exactly what he was looking for in a search and rescue dog. “I was looking for what we call a ‘toy or play drive’, which basically means the dog’s willingness to play with and be interested in toys,” John explains. “Most of her training revolves around the use of toys as a reward so a dog’s toy drive is very important and out of the whole litter Darcy was the most respondent to toys.

So what does it take to graduate as an International search and rescue dog team? Well clearly finding the right canine candidate is all important not every perspective applicant will have the necessary qualities. Good working drive, agility, confidence, an excellent nose, trainability and good health are all key but any dog wishing to undertake this role will also need to have steady nerves. They will be working as part of a larger team and must be social and competent at working around huge distractions including noisy rescue equipment. A good handler like John with his search and rescue skills, enthusiasm in dog training and experience completes the team.


To achieve her accreditation as an ISAR dog Darcy has had to attend several gruelling grading assessments. One of the grading’s that John and Darcy have participated in was with UK-ISAR. This was an extensive grading exercise, which comprised of eight searches over a 36-hour period. Four rubble searches – two of which were at night, two open area searches – one at night and two building searches – one in a darkened building.

An important feature for a rescue dog is showing they can be stopped when working and this forms part of the grading. Having passed her grading, John and Darcy then engaged in a mission readiness test as a part of the Austrian based IRO (International Rescue Dog Organisation).

This time team John and Darcy conducted seven searches performed over 36 hours, encompassing hikes and rope work whilst being fully self-sufficient with food water and shelter to replicate a real mission.

As part of the national and international search and rescue strategy John and Darcy are a valuable handler/dog team saving lives, searching for live victims in rubble of disasters. In Part 2 we find out a little more about this team.

By Hanna Barten

See Darcy's kit - click here
See Darcy’s kit – click here

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