Well, the big deployment exercise in Les Epeisses and other locations has been and gone. It was a fantastic weekend that started when Jochen and I were on the train from Luzern to Geneva. My equipe leader Arielle Christie called to inform that an earthquake had hit the region and Jochen and I were asked to form part of an equipe to search for buried victims. Obviously this was a simulation but still... it made it all seem more authentic. This was Friday afternoon.
The equipe consisted of Arielle, equipe leader, Gaspard, tech person, Jutta with Giant Schnauzer bitch Winja (6 1/2), Nicole with Malinois bitch Betsy (4 1/2) and of course Jochen (nearly 8) and myself. It was a really great group to work with.
My friend Andrea as usual was wonderfully helpful and picked us up at the Geneva airport railway station again. Before leaving for the exercise I had an opportunity at the station to buy whatever food I thought we would need. The rule is that for the first three days of a deployment, we are required to look after ourselves and our dogs in respect to food and water.
As Jochen and I were the only ones coming by public transport it meant that we did not have anywhere to sleep as everyone else slept in their cars. Andrea had tried to get some clarification but the organisers decided that as this was 'deployment' they had to think their way through this. In the end Jochen and I slept in one of the large army garages that was divided by a large internal cyclone fence with a gate. I found some pallets, two for me and one for Jochen, Linda had bought two wool-type rugs, one for Jochen (doubled over) and one for me to lie on. Bruno had lent me his gym mat and down sleeping bag and there were large shelves on which I could spread out my gear. Considering this was 'deployment', this was luxury.
Arielle received her briefing and in turn briefed us. We did not start our work until 1.00 am as others were delayed by a traffic jam due to an accident (not simulated but actual.)
We worked in the site nick-named 'Salvador'. Jochen was called in to confirm an alert and made his way down into the basement. Everything was lit up like a Christmas tree as it would be in deployment. He located the figurant in a shaft at the far end very quickly and alerted really well. Later his next assignment was to search that basement again as new information indicated that there might be another person.
He very quickly went over to fine search and thoroughly checked out that basement room. He also disappeared into the shaft, turning left and eventually coming out in the first basement. He also disappeared into another shaft in the basement he had already checked but given how thoroughly he had searched, Arielle and I agreed that if someone was there, he would have found. For the sake of the exercise, the other two dogs were also called in with the same result.
THIRD SEARCH FOR THE NIGHT
Jochen was again called in to search, but this time the first basement where he came out of the shaft in the previous search. More information indicated localised the search area and after going through the shaft again, he suddenly stopped in it and scented carefully and intensively at a small gap in the wall of the tunnel, up into the roof space and also at his feet. I noticed that there was actually a gap in the floor of the tunnel that lead to god only knows where. He alerted so well. I was so very, very proud of him. The other two dogs confirmed his find equally well.
At about 4.30 am we were told that we had to organise ourselves for deployment away from Les Epeisses and we had to make sure we had everything we needed for the day. We were to be ready to leave by 7.00am.
As is usual with these things, it was a case of hurry up and wait but we got under way about 7.45 am which all things considered was actually quite good. From the time we got back to the base from the night search to actually leaving for our next assignment was barely two hours. After having organised our gear for the day we had about an hour to cat-nap.
Three ancient Mercedes 4WDs were made available by their civil defence. These rattlers were at least 25 years old and had seen better days. The back section had bench seats along the sides into which were crammed all the equipe members except me, two dogs, Gaspard's enormous tech gear consisting of cameras, sonar and listening devices, and of course everyone' day packs and mats for the dogs to lie on. Jochen and I were parked in the front. I pushed the seat back as far as I could and that made just enough room for Jochen at my feet. Urs was our driver and he drove with an enthusiasm that was marvellous to behold, managing to get an incredible speed out of these old clunkers. Windows rattles, strange noises and smells emerged from the engine but we got there.
We were taken to Serbeco, that large recycling centre we worked at a few weekends ago. It still rained and we had the good fortune to be able to make the building I stuffed around in previously, our base. Arielle had by now worked out how her three dog/handler teams worked and what our strengths and weaknesses are. We all agreed that the three dogs were actually very similar with only small differences. Jochen being the best at fine searching although the other two were very good as well, Betsy being very light-footed and quite quick at alerting whilst Winja is also light-footed and quick at alerting. Depending on the situation, Jochen will also alert very quickly but has a tendency to try to get as close as possible to the figurant before doing so.
I spoke to Arielle about my confusion which helped her to understand my actions in handling Jochen. This was a very good example of how different the work in an equipe is compared to being on one's own in a test. As someone said to me, in an equipe the dog handler is protected and looked after so that s/he can concentrate on their dog and protect and look after him/her. The equipe system has been refined over decades of deployment experience and works very efficiently, especially as it ensures the welfare of the dogs and therefore maintains their capacity to continue working reliably.
The second assignment for Jochen was to search a largish area that included tree stumps and timber and wood chip piles. There were quite a few no-go areas because of real dangers, and people were strategically placed to ensure the safety of the dogs. Talking of which, safety of their dogs has the highest priority.
After searching for a short while, he settled on the pile of timber tree trunks and roots that were very slippery from the rain. Arielle was concerned for Jochen because of his size and he did slip a few times. But he was undeterred, walking in places that caused us to hold our breath. This was one of those occasions where he took a long time to decide that he simply could not get any closer to the figurant and eventually did a really good alert, but not before trying to squeeze into some small spaces not fit for a dog his size.
His third assignment was to confirm an alert in a huge and rough wood chip pile and to then continue the search and clear an area of another wood chip pile and space around it. Arielle was very pleased with his work,especially how thorough he was in searching. In other words, if anyone had been there, were were assured that he would have found them.
It was very interesting to watch Gaspard at work and to see how Arielle brought him into the search work, thus complementing the dogs' work. When Gaspard was not working with his equipment, he always seemed to be there, intensely observing the dogs and helping to lift, hold and carry the dogs as needed.
I found it very interesting to see how the tech search component is being integrated as similar ideas are afloat in Australia. There was talk that a specifically trained tech person (and their training takes about 2 years here) ideally should be part of every equipe. That makes sense.
It took us several hours of systematic searching, confirming with the dogs and with the tech search ( just for the experience sometimes the tech search was called in even when not needed) to search the major part of Serbeco. It still rained.
We had an early lunch in the building with the people playing 'victim' joining us. This was one of those times where we had an opportunity to thank those people who are willing to give up their time to spend hours stuck in an uncomfortable hole somewhere. Without such kind and somewhat mad people, we could not practice.
Then came word that we were needed in the Canton (something like a state) Wallis and we were to leave immediately. About 15 minutes later we hit the road, squashed into the old Merc 4WD as before. By now I am used to Jochen just going along with whatever is asked of him. He somehow managed to make himself comfortable and dozed. I need to add that he weighs 37 kg and is about 67 cm at the wither - not a small dog.
In total we travelled just over 300 km that day. we arrived at yet another recycling centre and were shown an area where we were to wait. Arielle went off to gather information and eventually returned and the only news she could give us was to wait. The photos of the equipe are at this point - waiting.......and waiting.... so much like deployment, which is of course how it was meant to be.
Just as we were settling in for a much needed cat nap, we were told to gather our stuff and move to another spot closer to where we would eventually work. There was a scramble to get the most shady spot for our dog and we actually did rather well as all three dogs had good, shady and safe places in which to rest...and wait....and wait.......
Winja and Jutta were called first to search a smallish area and she found quickly. Jochen was brought in to confirm which he also did very quickly and then Betsy was also brought in who again also performed her usual excellent work.
Jochen was then asked to continue searching the next bay where there was a large truck, several rows of new wheelie bins and a shipping container. he showed a lot of interest at the truck and all along the base of the container but did not alert. Arielle and I agreed that he clearly had something but given the wind, it could quite easily be from an area behind the container that was at this stage out of bounds but that within the designated search area, there was no-one. Both Betsy and Winja showed similar interest.
Word then came that both dogs and handlers would be lifted up onto the container and abseil down the other side into what until now had been out of bounds. As Jochen is quite used to being raised and lowered I at first said that he and I would do this. However, when I saw the harness, I knew that this was not going to work. I tried to fit it to Jochen but it was impossible. So a space was made for him to walk through to the other side whilst I went through the abseiling exercise. As Nicole was not happy about the fit for Betsy either, she also decided not to let her do this part of the exercise.
FINAL SEARCH IN WALLIS
This was a very tricky search as there were quite a few no-go areas for serious reasons. Obedience, control and direction were tested to the max. Our dogs were not fazed and continued to search. Winja had been the first dog through and gave an indication but not sufficient to call an alert. Jochen showed interest in much the same areas, and as we were to discover later, actually came quite close to the figurant. However, given the wind conditions and the type of pile that it was, the buildings and machinery that the air currents banked up against or swirled around, he was unable to pinpoint exactly either. He really tried very hard, going into some pretty grotty, oily stuff, up a set of very steep and open metal steps where he had to be helped down as they were so steep. His best efforts did not bring an alert. Betsy had a similar experience and this is one we had to leave. We agreed that in a real deployment the decision would be to come back say an hour or say later where the air currents and temperature might have changed sufficiently to make it worth another try.
HOME TO A WARM MEAL & SLEEP AT LAST
We finally gathered up our gear and piled back into the old Merc 4WD again and headed 'home'. As the citizens of the area had been so grateful for our efforts, a warm meal awaited us - oh joy!!!! A shower, a final piddle walk for Jochen (and all the dogs of course) and we settled down for the first sleep in 36 hours. What a fabulous, fabulous time it had been so far. The whole equipe functioned like a well-oiled machine, everyone pulled their weight, there were no dramas or hissy fits and everyone behaved like a professional, getting on with the job quietly and efficiently. My first stint in a REDOG equipe with Jochen has been more successful than I could have hoped for. With my head band over my eyes for darkness, I slept like a baby.