Who founded SDF?
ABC World News Person of the Week
On September 30, 2011, SDF founder Wilma Melville was featured as “Person of the Week” on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer. The piece aired as the final segment of a three-part series on retirement called “Second Acts,” and features Wilma at the site of the future National Training Center, and Search Teams Linda Tacconelli & Joe and Deresa Teller & Ranger in action.
CNN Hero Nominee
Every year CNN selects 24 men and women as CNN Heroes: “everyday people changing the world.” This year Wilma was selected from thousands of candidates around the world for this top honor. She was chosen for her vision, passion, and determination in building an organization that partners rescued dogs with firefighters to save lives. The piece features Search Teams Eric Gray & Riley, Ron Horetski & Pearl, Billy Monahan & Hunter.
Q & A With Wilma Melville
Why did a retired schoolteacher from New Jersey, a grandmother with four grown sons, complicate her life by founding an organization dedicated to training the nation’s most highly skilled search dogs? “I went to Oklahoma City.” Simply put, quietly spoken, this is how Wilma’s story—and the story of SDF—begins.
WILMA, YOUR WORK WITH THIS FOUNDATION HAS HAD A TREMENDOUS IMPACT ON URBAN DISASTER RESPONSE IN THE UNITED STATES. HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN WHAT HAS BECOME YOUR LIFE'S MISSION?
After retiring from a career as a Physical Education teacher, I indulged in my yearning to have a highly trained dog. I had the good fortune of finding Pluis Davern, a nationally renowned canine trainer at Sundowners Training Kennel in Gilroy, California.
Pluis worked with me and my Black Lab, Murphy, teaching us the skills that make a fine canine search team. Even more importantly, Pluis imparted values and concepts to us that have influenced my life, and the formation of this Foundation. These principles are the bedrock of how we move into the future. Murphy and I attained Advanced Disaster Search Dog certification with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). At that time there were very few Certified teams in the entire country.
In April of 1995, Murphy and I were deployed to the terrorist-bombed Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Murphy and the other search dogs covered large areas of rubble, barking loudly to indicate where victims were buried, thereby saving precious time for firefighters. This disaster made it clear that there were too few certified search dog/handler teams. Out of this heartbreaking experience came a determination to find a better way to create highly skilled canine search teams.
HOW DID THE OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBING PROPEL YOU TO START SDF?
At that point, in 1995, there were only 15 Advanced Certified disaster search dog/handler teams in the entire U.S. (there are over 250 now). It was obvious to me that we would be crippled by any large-scale disaster with so few FEMA-certified teams. Somehow, there had to be a way to train more, and to train them faster, in a more cost-efficient manner.
HOW COULD THAT BE DONE?
Well, that was the question. Up until 1995, all disaster search dogs certified in the United States were trained and handled by civilian volunteers using methods brought by the Swiss 15 years earlier. But it took three to five years to train for Certification—to say nothing of the owner spending upwards of $15,000 on training equipment, travel, veterinary care, training group fees and the purchase of a dog from proven working lines. There was little professional training of either dog or handler, so few made it to certification. Clearly, there were many pitfalls in this approach, ranging from choosing the wrong dog to trying to maintain motivation through such a long training period. There had to be a better way.
SO YOU STARTED THE FOUNDATION. BUT HOW DID YOU GET AROUND THOSE CHALLENGES?
My experience with trainer Pluis Davern taught me the three ingredients that are paramount: the right dog, matched with the right handler and professional training for both. This three-pronged combination not only addresses those pitfalls, but also accounts for our success in turning rescued dogs into rescuers success rate. The Foundation chooses the dog, raises the funds to have the dog professionally trained, and then works with the handler and dog as a team until they reach certification and beyond. Another part of the success is that we use firefighters, who are first to a disaster, as the handlers. Skills needed for deployment often go far beyond the testing for certification; we use testing as a way-point but not an end in itself. This is a long road, and firefighters have the discipline that's needed, a schedule that accommodates an intensive training regimen and have a job that is disaster-related. Plus, they already have certification in many disaster response areas, and the skills needed to save lives.
HOW DO YOU FIND THE RIGHT DOGS?
SDF recruits dogs from shelters and breed rescue groups, gives them professional training, and partners them with firefighters and other first responders to find people trapped in the wreckage following disasters. We go to great lengths to find canines with the exceptional characteristics required in a search dog: intense drive, athleticism, energy and focus. The traits that can make dogs unsuitable as family pets and land them in a shelter—intense energy and extreme drive—are exactly the qualities required in a search dog. SDF offers these amazing animals what they crave: a job! The dogs (primarily Labs, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies and mixes) are recruited from animal shelters and breed rescue groups throughout the Western states—some just hours away from being euthanized. A happy ending for all… as these dogs are transformed from rescued to rescuer.
HOW HAVE SDF TEAMS HELPED?
SDF canine disaster search teams have been deployed to more than 80 emergencies and disasters, including the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, the Japan earthquake and tsunami, and tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri and Oklahoma City. At disaster sites, SDF-trained teams search the rubble quickly and effectively, ensuring that no survivors are left behind. In Haiti, 12 survivors were brought to safety.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE FUTURE OF THE SEARCH DOG FOUNDATION?
The United States recognizes the need to be better prepared for a wide variety of disasters. As a result, most states are developing urban search-and-rescue capabilities. The demand for canine disaster search teams is growing rapidly. SDF is responding to this need, providing highly skilled teams to be placed throughout the country. SDF has trained more than 130 canine disaster search teams, and currently has more than 70 active teams throughout the U.S. and in Baja California. When disaster strikes, SDF will be there, ready to save lives.
WHAT IS THE SDF’S NATIONAL TRAINING CENTER PROJECT?
SDF is creating a National Training Center (NTC) for all canine disaster search teams who risk their lives to make sure no one is left behind when disaster strikes. It will be the only Center of its kind in the U.S. To meet the urgent need for more search teams, the facility will bring together canine recruitment and training, advanced training of teams at simulated disaster sites, and Certification testing. Located at a historic ranch site 90 minutes north of Los Angeles, the Center will serve as a disaster response resource for the entire nation. This unique project calls upon the “can do” spirit of America, mobilizing the resources, talents and energy of the private and nonprofit sectors to bring a life-saving gift to the nation… at no cost to taxpayers. The NTC is slated to open its doors in 2012.