As I walked up the long driveway to the House a two-way radio crackled into life.
“One body is in the bushes and the other body is in the stables….”
It was difficult to know if I had heard correctly for just at that moment a helicopter was flying low over the grounds and a couple of dogs with fluorescent orange jackets were barking.
“Had I stumbled on a murder scene? Was this a film set for a disaster movie?”
No, it was the Accreditation day for the Trossachs Search and Rescue Team and their dogs. Three independent Assessors were about to put the dogs and their handlers through a number of simulated searches to find volunteer ‘bodies’ already hidden in sleeping bags and camouflage gear concealed under rhododendron bushes, in piles of rubble or tucked away in remote cupboards in the House.
The Team had used Bannockburn House and it’s surroundings for the previous two sundays as part of their training schedule prior to the independent assessment day on Saturday, May 5th.
There was a lot at stake as the older dogs were to have their ability reassessed and confirmed and the younger dogs would learn if they were now skilled enough to graduate to full accreditation.
Who are Trossachs SAR?
Trossachs SAR team was formed in 1998. It is a charity, run by volunteers covering the area of the Trossachs National Park but also supporting the emergency response units and village communities throughout Scotland if required. They train the dogs and handlers to carry out urban search and rescue helping Police, Fire and Coastguard services locate missing persons in a wide range of environments.
Finding the Victim!
For the search to work successfully, the dogs have to learn how to locate and follow a human scent and indicate what they have discovered to their handler. Once the dog has found ‘the victim’ the onus is on the handler to understand and correctly read the dog’s body language for the team to successfully retrieve the body. It takes many months and hours of dedicated training for the dog to learn the necessary skill and for that critical understanding to build up between dog and human.
Trainee dogs wear fluorescent lime green and accredited dogs wear orange jackets. Each dog also has a bell and a flashing light attached to its jacket. When they are required to search inside a building, the dogs have to wear socks and bootees to protect their paws from possible glass or other damaging debris meanwhile their humans have to wear head-to-toe high-visibility overalls, knee pads, heavy boots, hard hats and carry a communication radio so it needs time and practice to be at ease in all this protective gear. SAR dogs are trained to remain quiet and relatively silent, resting in their vehicles until needed as sometimes it can be several hours into an emergency scenario before they actually begin working so although here were several dogs on site there was very little barking.
It was fascinating watching the experienced dogs as they quickly latched on to a scent and efficiently found the hidden person, rarely straying from the general direction of the concealed ‘body’, tails wagging as they ran and then often announcing their find with a bark. These dogs clearly enjoyed the challenge. The handler sometimes had a difficult job to keep up with the dog as it charged under branches and hedges which the human had to somehow or other climb over or push through. One of the trainee dogs had an unexpected treat when he happened upon the bowl of dry food that we had left out for the resident stray cat!
The morning passed quickly and each dog seemed to have been successful, however, it would be a long wait till the handlers found out how they had performed. The trainee teams were to be assessed in the afternoon with all the results being announced at tea time. Each handler was then called in to receive feedback and learn if they had passed.
The Salvation Army
We were grateful that the Salvation Army had provided a mobile catering unit and that kept us all going as the day wore on. The Army volunteers also had interesting tales to tell of their experiences on different rescue mission where they have provided hot food and drink to emergency teams to keep them going.
Trossachs SAR team leader Stuart was delighted with the day. He told me that a few years ago there were only two trained dogs and handlers so it was full time task as they were always on standby. Now with all these dogs and handlers it is a much bigger and stronger team.
For the record, all 4 senior dogs and their handlers passed and two new dogs Oscar and Spock and their humans received their accreditation.
We are grateful to Trossachs SAR for their generous donation to the House funds and we hope to see you in future to help you carry out this vital work as you train more volunteers with two and four legs.
Congratulations to everyone on a successful day. You will undoubtedly help to save lives in the future.
For more information see on Trossachs SAR click here.