The Man Behind The Helmet

The K-9 Units

When I first arrived at the fire station, in the very beginning of my project, I was far from imagining that I would one day have the great opportunity to witness emergency drills like the NRBC-E, or follow the men of the GRIMP or of the K-9 units.

We arranged to meet on a demolition lot. Several square meters of rubble and ruined buildings, brought down or on the brink of collapse. An ideal training setting for the firemen, and an excellent playground for their four-legged companions.

It is all very well to say that these dog handlers share an incredible bond with their animals. But to watch them is another experience altogether. The closeness, the understanding and, above all, the respect they display for each other is really unique. If a dog growls at me, his master will not reprimand him; instead, he will explain to me what I have done and why it was not a good thing, in terms of dog psychology. But education and training are not everything. From what I was able to see, the master must primarily gain the acceptation of his animal and his absolute trust. This is the essential condition guaranteeing that the dog will feel secure enough to let himself be tied in a harness on his master’s back, before abseiling without fear in the depths of a pit, for example.

After some questions about the different breeds, the diet, the exercises, the reason why it is important to praise a dog that answered to the call and came back when giving chase to a cat, my interrogations naturally veered towards the reasons to use dogs and the best way to do it. Searching for the victims of a disaster is the first answer that comes to mind, but these animals can be useful in many other occasions. The members of the team explained that they can be very effective to find a missing and endangered individual such as an elderly person suffering from Alzheimer’s who would have left home and would be incapable to come back. The notion of “missing and endangered” is key. Under no circumstances can these dogs be used to find an escaped prisoner, for example. Like their handlers, they are exclusively here to help people and have no part to play in maintaining law and order. Anyway, according to one of the men who had a previous experience as a dog handler in security, the training and interactions with the animals are very different in this domain.

The day I took my pictures, the drill, although simple in appearance, was quite impressive to watch. The first operation consisted in searching for a person amongst rubble. The exercise went through various stages: simply lying on the ground at the beginning, the fireman impersonating the victim ended up buried under a heap of debris. I was standing in the middle of the area, and I first worried about disturbing the dog in his work, for he didn’t know me or my scent, and I was just there, clicking away in the area where he was supposed to work. He was totally unruffled. As soon as his handler gave him the signal, the dog began to track odors, on the ground and in the air. He was not restrained by a leash, and his master was just watching him; I suppose the handler follows his animal more closely in real situations. Passing near me, the dog sniffed at me for half a second, but I was clearly of no interest. It’s only at the end of the exercise that I understood: these dogs are trained to search for victims, and victims are never standing up. Indeed, each time he came across somebody lying on the ground, he marked the presence of the victim by stopping and barking. In spite of the difficult terrain and situations, it was really interesting to see how the dogs were enjoying themselves. That is where the bond between handler and dog is crucial as finding the victim is not the primordial motivation of the dog; he desires above all to satisfy his master.

After this, the members of the unit demonstrated how they abseil down into a ruined building, with their dogs harnessed on their backs. It is one thing to see this kind of intervention on TV. It has almost become commonplace. But to find oneself in this situation and see those men and their animals do it barely two meters away from you arouses an entirely different emotion.

I really want to extend all my thanks to the members of this K-9 unit (and their dogs, of course) who so kindly rearranged their busy schedule and organized this exercise for me when nothing was planned.