By 1st Lt. Christopher StanisAugust 11, 2014
JOINT BASE LEWIS MCCHORD, Wash. (Aug. 11, 2014) -- U.S. Army Reserve engineer Soldiers had a unique opportunity this summer to get quality training while providing a service truly in line with the Army Corps of Engineer's mission of civil support.
That opportunity was a partnership with the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation to build the National Training Center (NTC) in Santa Paula, California, which will greatly increase the foundation's capabilities for training canine disaster search teams. And the NTC will be the first facility of its kind in the United States to offer this sort of training.
The Search Dog Foundation has been training dogs and handlers since 1996, but without a dedicated training site, the foundation's staff was constantly seeking out temporary facilities, like junk yards and rock quarries. Then, founder Wilma Melville learned of the Department of Defense's Innovative Readiness Training (IRT). The IRT program was introduced in the 1990s to improve military readiness while simultaneously providing quality services to communities throughout America.
Fast forward to May 15, The 672nd Engineer Company, an Army Reserve unit from Missoula, Montana, broke ground on the NTC's Disaster Search Zone - a series of props that search dog teams will use simulate rescues in various disaster scenarios. The Army engineers erected several building to replicate a small town stricken by catastrophe.
"This is actually an amazing opportunity and a great partnership that we have here," said Capt. Lealan Hafner, 672nd Engineer Company commander. "We're building these training props for (the Search Dog Foundation) to train their teams, but in order to do that we're training, and it's bigger and better training than we've ever had before. If we can build this, we can build anything."
Hafner was also tasked as the officer in charge of this construction project. While most Soldiers have rotated out every two to three weeks, she arrived April 1, having the rare privilege of seeing the project through, from start to finish. She explained that Army technical engineers designed blueprints that would meet the foundation's requirements while meeting the military's training needs.
"(The Search Dog Foundation) hadn't really specified anything that they necessarily wanted yet. They had all these big ideas," Hafner said. "So by pairing the foundation with the Army designers and draftsmen, we were able to decide on what they needed, but also what we needed."
The Army engineers had additional support from active duty and Reserve naval construction personnel, more commonly known as Seabees. This gave them the opportunity to trade best practices between uniformed services.
"It's always cool to work with joint services," noted Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Ciopryna, a utilitiesman with Port Hueneme, California's, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 3. "The Army has a different way of doing their construction side of the house, so we get to share safety and quality control tips. At the end of the day we actually have training with the Army, so it's really good for everyone."
The NTC will be an enduring project, intended to train canine disaster search teams for years to come. For this reason, all structures were built to California building standards, durable and long lasting. This is deeply contrasted from the hastily constructed facilities Army engineers are used to throwing together in contingency operations.
"They've dealt with building a plywood board that swings shut with a piece of 550 cord and a water bottle full of dirt," said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Rainey, a platoon sergeant with the 672nd Engineer Company. "(Building the Disaster Search Zone) they're learning really high quality carpentry skills ... and some of them can turn it into a job back home that actually pays and supports them."
Rainey added that the high-quality learning experience is what drives the mission for them, but it has been an added bonus knowing that their work will have an impact on disaster relief in the United States and around the world.
"We're more in it just to kind of swing hammers and build," he said, "but to know that what we're building at some point could save a life, I think everyone kind of realizes that in the back of their mind."
And save lives is what these search dog teams do. Dave Stoddard is a handler and retired fire fighter who witnessed search dogs' efforts lead to the rescue of more than 300 survivors at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Now he is a Federal Emergency Management Agency Urban Search and Rescue team manager in Sacramento, California. With a number of canine search team deployments under his belt, from man-made to natural disasters, he is a staunch advocate of what the NTC will do for the future of disaster search dogs.
"I responded to hurricane Katrina and it was literally miles and miles and miles of disaster. A situation like (the NTC) will allow us to recreate those demands on a dog," Stoddard said. "What a set like this will do is allow us to train scenarios on a larger scale ... we're going to have multiple (rubble) piles, we're going to have multiple buildings, and what we've done is expanded to a more realistic scenario."
These Soldiers will be wrapping up their summer construction in the next couple of weeks, but this partnership will not be ending. The IRT project was recently approved for military engineers to continue building next year.
"(To come back) I don't think anyone would feel really bad about that," concluded Rainey. "It's an important mission that these dogs do and this foundation has taken charge of. To spread search dogs throughout the nation and have them all taught right here, have them at a centralized location...they're making the standard of search dogs."