At 12:30 a.m. Thursday morning, the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department’s newest four-legged member began his first shift.
Seven hours later, Ivan, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois, was still active, alert and raring to go in his new career as a rescue dog.
“We were both supposed to start our shifts at 7 a.m. this morning, but I had to fill in for someone overnight, so we both got here early,” said Ivan’s handler, Lt. Kristi Bartlett.
Ivan and Bartlett’s lives will be intertwined for the next decade or so, according to Chief Chris Schaff. “Having a rescue dog assigned to you as a handler is a serious 8- to 10-year commitment,” he said.
According to Bartlett, Ivan took a roundabout route getting to Fairfax County.
“He is from Snellville, Georgia, by way of California,” she said. “Which is where we met and bonded during training.”
Ivan, and another rescue dog soon to arrive in Fairfax — a Labrador retriever named Scout — were both trained by the National Search Dog Foundation in Ojai, Calif., for nearly a year before being partnered with two local firefighters. The foundation has rescued hundreds of dogs, many on the brink of euthanasia, and turned them into highly skilled rescuers.
According to SDF spokeswoman Denise Sanders, it costs the organization about $20,000 to recruit, care for and train each dog, partner it with a firefighter-handler, and provide ongoing training to the team. SDF provides the dogs at no cost to fire departments and other disaster response agencies across the country, funded only by private donations and grants.
According to Sanders, since 1996 the nonprofit organization has so far produced about 150 canine/firefighter search teams, 72 of which are still active throughout the country.
These teams have responded to 104 missing-person searches and disasters, including the World Trade Center attacks, Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, and scores of local and regional emergencies.
“SDF recruits dogs from across the country, often rescued from abuse or abandonment. Typically these dogs demonstrate high energy, tenacity and boldness, making them ideal for search and rescue, but unsuitable for a family pet,” Sanders said. “After passing stringent screening and testing criteria, the dogs are then trained to harness that high energy, drive and tenacity into life-saving skills.”
According to the American Kennel Club, the Belgian Malinois is one of four types of Belgian sheepherding dogs and typically is an alert, high-energy breed that is popular as both a police and military working dog.
“SDF then chooses the best possible firefighters and other first-responder partners for our dogs,” Sanders said. “Our master trainer Sonja Heritage — a former Virginia Task Force 1 member — usually decides who to pair the dogs with, based on personality traits and personal chemistry. In Ivan’s case, it was obvious that he bonded with Lieutenant Bartlett.”
Bartlett, a hazmat specialist with a degree in biology and chemistry, is herself a member of the elite VATF1, which means Ivan will be as well.
“As soon as Ivan completes his FEMA certification training, he will be able to deploy with Lieutenant Bartlett and VATF1 on both domestic and international rescue missions,” Schaff said. “We expect him to complete his training by December or January. Once certified, his primary responsibility will be to seek out people buried beneath rubble by way of smell. “We train the dogs by putting someone about 25 feet under rubble piles to see if they can find them,” he said.
According to Schaff, VATF1, with 210 members, has 11 women and 14 rescue dogs currently on its roster.
“I was always interested in hazmat and rescue,” Bartlett said. “I saw becoming a dog handler as another opportunity, for the both of us.”