Search dogs a boost to Monroe County emergency officials

When searching for a missing person, a few hours can mean the difference between life and death.

Just a few months ago, finding a missing person in Monroe County was a huge challenge for Emergency Management Agency Director Matt Perry and other rescue officials.

Rescue workers and volunteers often would search in densely wooded terrain for a missing person, with no idea if they were even moving in the right direction, Perry said.

But the county has another valuable tool for searches now, thanks to two county emergency workers training their canines to become search-and-rescue dogs.

“We are pleased and optimistic at the added capability we now have,” Perry said. “We’ve had several missing people with the elderly and children. It’s all about time. The faster you get the dogs on the ground and on the scent, you’re ahead of the ball game.”

Jason Lott, 38, a captain with the Monroe County Fire Department, was inspired to train his German shepherd/Labrador retriever mix named Scooter to assist in search-and-rescue operations in part because a fellow firefighter, Ron Bryant, had done the same with his German shepherd, Kadian.

At first, Scooter seemed an unlikely candidate to become a search-and-rescue dog.

“He was the runt of the litter,” Lott said. “My son Christopher raised the dog the first couple of years. (Scooter) kept on escaping, (and when we’d look for him,) he would track my son until we found him.”

That’s when Lott decided to see if Scooter had the ability to work as a full-time search-and-rescue dog.

Bryant, 41, who works as a firefighter/EMT in the county, said he bought Kadian with the intention of turning her into a search-and-rescue dog.

“I’ve been on too many searches without dogs,” he said. “She was purchased for this purpose. She comes from a long line of law enforcement dogs. I started to train her when she was 6 months old. It took about a year.”

Lott and Bryant both trained with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and are licensed for the next three years to participate in search-and-rescue operations. GEMA officials said there are 31 handlers and 101 dogs across Georgia that have been issued licenses. Dogs must be certified by the American Kennel Club’s Good Citizen Program to qualify for a license, and handlers must take a 14-hour rescue course offered by GEMA.

The license applies to missing people, but not escaped criminals. The state’s Department of Corrections maintains its own dogs trained specifically to capture escaped convicts.

Monroe County Sheriff John Cary Bittick said his office has already employed the dogs a couple of times.

“It’s probably going to be a good thing (for the county),” he said. “It’s good for someone who is missing from a nursing home.”

Having the dogs available for searches means employing a slightly different strategy when searching for a missing person, Perry said. In the past, without that resource, rescue workers often searched a particular area, even though they had no idea which direction the missing person might have traveled.

Now, Perry said, his agency is coming up with different policies to deal with someone who’s missing. The human rescuers will be held back while the dogs search an area first so they won’t confuse the scent. Meanwhile, officials in helicopters conduct aerial searches.

“We’re still working out the kinks in our policies,” Perry said. “We’re not doing this on the fly. ... We want (searches) to be very surgical, then follow up with the ground-pounders.”

So far, Lott and Bryant said they’ve paid for the dogs’ training and upkeep out of their own pockets. Lott estimated it costs about $2,500 a year to keep Scooter.

Perry said he’s carving some money out of his budget to pay for things like food and harnesses for the dogs, and he’s working with county officials on items such as workers’ compensation should the handlers or their dogs get injured during a rescue operation.

“They’re used as a tool by the county, so we want to afford them every protection, especially since it usually involves rough terrain,” Perry said.

The county usually has a half-dozen or so missing people a year, many of whom are either seniors suffering from some form of dementia or children, especially those with conditions such as autism, he said.

An added benefit of having Bryant and Lott as the dogs’ handlers means that both men are already aware of command structure and rescue procedures, Perry said. A civilian with a dog often doesn’t have that background, he said, which is why only these two dogs are working with the county right now.

It’s not just Monroe County that will benefit from the dogs’ training. Bryant and Lott said their dogs have worked in other Georgia counties to look for missing people. They usually try to perform training exercises with the dogs once or twice a week to keep their skills sharp.

Lott said his dog lives at his home just like his other pets. The dogs can discriminate among scents as long as they have an article of clothing from the missing person.

“When he’s not working, he’s treated like our other dogs,” Lott said of Scooter.

Bryant said the dogs should make a difference when it comes to searches in the future.

“I’ve been on long searches where we’ve never found (the missing person),” Bryant said. “Months later, someone will find a body. We’ve had 13 finds in the last two years.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.