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Rescue group hopes for county support
Thurmont team is one-of-a-kind in Frederick County

Ingrid Mezo

(12/22) Thurmont K9 search and rescue, based at Thurmont Volunteer Ambulance Company 30, is a little-known resource that could make a big difference in a time of crisis.

The team is the only one of its type in Frederick County.

Search and rescue dogs are most commonly used to find lost campers, hikers, hunters, children and Alzheimer’s patients, team trainer Debbie Schmidt said. The group hopes that Frederick County commissioners in January will recognize it as a specialty team for the county, like the Advanced Technical Rescue Team (ATR) or the dive team. Such recognition would mean the K9 search and rescue team would be called out more frequently and receive extra funding, Schmidt said.

‘‘Right now we pretty much support ourselves and get the big items from Thurmont Ambulance Company," Schmidt said.

The ambulance company provides the team’s equipment and insurance costs, while team members are currently paying all their training costs out of pocket.

The dogs used for search and rescue are trained differently than dogs used for criminal searches, which are most often employed by the police department. Search and rescue dogs have to be able to interact well with people and work off leash as they smell the air and look for missing people.

Frederick County has not had many searches this year, Schmidt said, and police generally handle searches with their bloodhounds first before calling in a search and rescue unit. Since the team became operational four years ago, it has only been called out on four searches, team coordinator Joy Burrier said.

If the bloodhounds lose the track, police call Thurmont K9 search and rescue to bring in their dogs. Police assign search and rescue members an area to canvass, and the dog and handler teams will walk a grid pattern to look for the missing person.

The team started out with two operational dog and handler teams four years ago, and now has four operational teams. It takes about 1 1/2 years for a first time dog and handler team to become fully operational. The team’s four operational teams include Burrier and her dog, Chance, Schmidt and her dog, Klink, Kurt Hornicek and his dog, Sierra, and Stacy Watts and her dog, Fancy.

Wendy and Travis Pittman, Joy Spidle, Nate Wilson and Tammy Stralker are currently training their dogs to become operational. Burrier and Schmidt also are training two other dogs.

‘‘We’re a very tight-knit group," Hornicek said. ‘‘We’re good friends as well as coworkers, and it makes the training and the work so much more enjoyable."

Being part of a K9 search and rescue team takes an especially rugged handler and dog to stick out the requirements for daily practice and weekends spent training the dogs in the fields.

‘‘It’s tough work so a lot of people won’t stick with it," Schmidt said. ‘‘People go in and out all the time. Even when you become operational you are constantly in training because you can’t back down and let the dogs slack up."

The dogs all have to have enough energy to work for six- to eight-hour stretches, and cover 160 acres of ground. There is no breed requirement, but the dogs are generally medium to large, and often include German Shepherds, Rottweilers and Border Collies.

Six of the dogs on the search and rescue teams now have been either rescued from the shelter or some type of breed rescue, Burrier said. The best search dogs are dogs that like people and like to play.

‘‘The dogs love it and it makes for happy dogs," Schmidt said. ‘‘You can take a dog that is a little bit shy and get it involved with this work, and the dog’s personality begins to shine. It makes the dogs more confident."

The search and rescue team members begin training the dogs at all different ages, but the earlier they start, the better, Burrier said. The key to the training is to make it a positive experience for the dog each time it finds the missing person.

‘‘Our team is absolutely what they call a stacked team," Schmidt said. ‘‘...We have a team that would be able to do a lot more than most teams of this type usually are. Plus, everyone on our team is either a first responder or an EMT, whereas for almost all other K9 search and teams, the requirement is basic first aid. I think that’s one of the ways we differ from other teams — our medical [skills are] much better than theirs are."

Handlers must

  • Be an active member of the Thurmont Ambulance Co. A police background check is part of the application process.
  • Be a first responder or higher (i.e. EMT, CRT, or paramedic)
  • Take and pass a swift water awareness class approved by Maryland Fire and Rescue.
  • Enjoy hiking and being outdoors in all weather.
  • Pass a 160-acre day, and 40-acre night training.
  • Participate in survival night in below-40-degree weather, with only what you can carry in your backpack.
  • Be on call 24 hours a day after you become search ready.

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