The New Mexico Search and Rescue Council is holding its Emergency Services Annual Preparedness Event (ESCAPE) May 13-15 at the Ruidoso Convention Center. Tamy Willard, a Logan resident, bookkeeper and 15-year rescue council member, spoke with the Quay County Sun about the training event and her experience with search and rescue operations. For more information about the training event, contact Phyllis Wright at 575-496-8817.
Can you tell us about the upcoming search and rescue training event?
They have different instructors that teach people that are just coming into search and rescue how to read a map and compass. They also have ham radio classes and give the tests for people to get their ham radio license. They have first responder and first aid for people finding someone that's hurt, knowing what to do. There's a lot of interest in search and rescue and people just don't know who to contact and where to get the training. It is open to the public.
Can you tell us about your experience as a search and rescue volunteer?
I joined search in rescue probably in 1986 in Roswell and moved up here about 9 years ago. I work with canines now. I belong to Amarillo Alliance of Search K-9s. We're just a group of canine handlers. In Texas ... we get called by the local sheriff or police department and we go look for people either living or deceased. We get calls for missing children, for Alzheimer's patients, for drowning victims. We work with dogs on boats and (dogs) can smell the scent from a drowning victim that rises to the surface of the water.
We train our dogs for that. They also have alerts on land. Whenever they've found somebody, they come back. When they find somebody, they're trained to come back to us and then take us back to that person.
And then on boats, we work with them on the boats and they'll bark or paw at the bottom of the boat when they've found the scent.
Well, that's basically what we do with our dogs. I have two dobermans. Most of the people on our team live in Canyon and Amarillo. Most of them have German shepherds. We've got one couple that lives in Dalhart and they have a bloodhound.
Which breed do you prefer?
I have dobermans. I just prefer their personality is the only thing. Any working or herding dog can pretty much do the work. We had a bloodhound at work in Santa Rosa a few weeks ago and he tracked for four hours there in town looking for a man. I have a male that's about 9 1/2 years old and I've retired him. He's my cadaver dog. I've retired him from everything pretty much except for working from boats to work him on water and stuff. My female is about 4 1/2 and she's certified life find and also scent specific, where we can have her scent on an article of clothing or gauze pad or something. She'll go out in a group of people and find a person and then go back and take me to that person. It's a little bit more detailed than just finding a person — it's a specific person. She's in training right now for cadaver work as well.
What made you decide to work with rescue dogs?
When I first got into search and rescue, probably in '86 or '87, it was not working with dogs. Once I saw them work I thought, well, that would be so much faster, working with dogs and their speed and running, you know, and their sense of smell is so much more keen than a human's. Then I got interested in training dogs and I've done it ever since.
Do you ever perform searches in cold or snowy areas?
We were called to Pecos. I don't remember if it was a year ago or so. There was a hunter that was lost, and he was elk hunting and he had gone up in the Pecos wilderness with some people. He had a bad knee or something and he told them he was going to hang around camp while they all went out hunting. When they came back he was gone, and the vehicle was still there, but he wasn't. A few days later they called and reported him missing and so then we had a big search going on up there for him. They never did find him. They had several teams of us looking out for him for weeks. The dogs tracked him to a certain point and after that they lost scent.
Earlier you mentioned searching for a missing man in Santa Rosa. The man's body was found about two weeks ago. Did your search dogs play a role in finding the body?
When they found out he was missing, they called out the national guard and they called out a team from Albuquerque ... and they couldn't find him. They pretty much searched the river. When we got there that following weekend we had the bloodhounds from Dalhart and they scented him off the guy's pickup to get the scent. We ran track behind them for four hours. He left a pickup at his friend's house apparently and he went walking around. The dog tracked everywhere he had been. He had been to several family members' and friends' houses that day and the dog tracked him, and then it got dark and we had to stop. The next weekend they had us moved to Fort Sumner Lake because they were concerned that maybe he had gone into the river and been swept down to the lake at Fort Sumner. Our dogs didn't have any indication whatsoever of his scent. They found him at the lake in Santa Rosa. He was just north of town. He was in a field.
What's the biggest misconception you hear about rescue dogs?
I've never really thought about that. One thing that did surprise me when we went to Lubbock to search for a drowning victim down there, when they got there with the dogs and the other deputies, people who were working the search and working with their own dive team found out the dogs were going to go on the boats wanted to know how many additional air tanks would be needed for the dogs. The dogs don't really go into the water. They just stay in the boat and smell the surface of the water to find the smell. We always have life jackets when we work the dogs on the water, just in case.
It would seem like your dogs can sometimes find themselves in dangerous situations.
You have to train a dog in order to have control over it and be able to direct it in different places. If they smelled something down on the canyon, they're likely as not just to jump off the cliff and try to get to it, so you have to slow them down and be able to correct them.
In New Mexico the handlers have to pass a certain, they call it a PACE test to show you're qualified and skilled to handle yourself out in the field and to have the appropriate supplies with you for the terrain you're going to be searching in, and sometimes the team members that get called to do mountain searches have to stay overnight, so they'll have tents and bedrolls they carry with them. You have to be able to read a map and compass, have GPS skills, tracking and that type of thing. A lot of it is common sense about leaving word what your search plan is and the area you're going to be searching, and don't go it alone and, it's ... a lot of common sense. You have to pass these certification tests to be called out on a search.
Is this a full-time occupation for you?
It's a hobby. There's lots of hours and of course our team is totally voluntary. We don't work off or ask for any contributions or donations or anything like that. We don't get reimbursed for expenses. Sometimes they offer to reimburse us for gas but that's not a requirement, that's not why we're in it. Maybe someday we'll need somebody to come look for us or a family member. We do it because it's important work, and whether a victim is alive or dead, it's going to bring closure to a family in the most efficient way possible.