Locating missing persons or the remains of those killed in disasters often requires painstaking measures and the coordinated effort of numerous people representing several government agencies.
But there’s nothing like the smelling capability of a trained dog when it comes to sniffing out results in many such situations. That’s where K-9 search units come in.
And while many law enforcement agencies have their own dogs to nose around when necessary, the need for their services is greater than their numbers. To meet that need, K-9 search units exist around the country.
Somewhat surprisingly, most are made up entirely of volunteers.
One such group operates out of Texas County: the Missouri Region G K-9 Search Team, an organization under the direction of the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA).
The squad’s efforts are coordinated by Texas County resident Joe Marsillo, a retired New York City transit worker who came to this area 14 years ago. Marsillo gained experience in the field as a member of the St. Clair Special emergency Services in Illinois, and a FEMA outfit called Nebraska Task Force One.
The local team features 14 other volunteers, many of whom are also members of volunteer fire departments. Eight are dog handlers, while the others are support personnel.
“There’s nothing really magical about it,” Marsillo said. “The people on the team like what they’re doing and they’re dedicated to doing it.”
Marsillo, who raised and trained bird dogs for almost 40 years, is also a firefighter with the City of Houston fire Department and is a hazardous materials technician and vehicle rescue technician. He recently completed six months of EMT school and will be tested this month. He started the team in June of last year after recognizing the area lacked sufficient K-9 services.
“And it’s what I like to do,” Marsillo said. “I’m going to keep doing this as long as I can.”
Marsillo houses and trains his search dogs on his 135-acre property in southern Texas County that he formerly used as a cattle ranch. One of his dogs, a two-year-old female German Shepherd named Bera, is certified in HR search (human remains) and accompanied Marsillo and seven team members to Joplin for five days of sifting through rubble left by the May 22 tornado.
The team worked both moderately affected neighborhoods and what Marsillo called “ground zero,” where the EF5 leveled everything. After “live-find” dogs combed a building or an area, HR-search specialists like Bera searched the same space.
“A lot of what we were finding were pieces,” Marsillo said. “You take a 200-mile-per-hour tornado that can strip the bark off of trees and rip a car in half, put a human body that’s made of 70-percent water in the middle of that mess, and you can imagine what’s going to happen. My dog would get a hit and some of the firefighters we were working with would ask, ‘Where’s the body?’
“I said, ‘You don’t understand, there’s no body.'”
Both Bera and Marsillo stepped on exposed nails during their five-day stay in the disaster zone.
“Every piece of wood on the ground had a nail in it and every one of them was sticking up,” Marsillo said. “It’s incredible that my dog didn’t get more nails than she did.”
While in Joplin, the Region G team located five people whose names were on the list of missing persons, but who for various reasons had been unable to tell anyone they were OK (like phone lines being down and their cars being destroyed).
Marsillo said TV pictures can’t convey what really took place in Joplin.
“Imagine every item you’ve ever seen in a store — whether it be a toy, ammunition, beauty supplies or what — everything was on the ground in front of you,” Marsillo said. “No matter where you walked, peoples’ lives were spread out all over the ground. But the team did a great job; they were bone tired by the end of the week, but they all wanted to go back.
“I was just glad we had the opportunity to go there and help make a difference.”
Another of Marsillo’s animals, a four-year-old male Lab mix named Boomer, is certified in live-find or area search. In the summer of 2009, Marsillo and Boomer were involved in the search for two children who were reported missing near Licking but whose bodies were later discovered in the Big Piney River.
Marsillo more or less rescued Boomer from his original owner, who was threatening to shoot him.
“I said, ‘You’re not going to shoot this dog,'” Marsillo said. “I obedience trained him and he’s one of the most obedient dogs you’ll ever see. And now he’s been on more searches than half the search people in Missouri.”
HR dogs like Bera are trained the only way possible — with the real thing. Marsillo said he gets permission to obtain several forms of training material, including human placentas, bones, grave dirt and more.
“You can’t teach a cadaver dog with a hot dog,” Marsillo said. “You have to have parts of a person. You use them in small quantities — the bad part of that is that when a dog comes across an entire body, they sometimes freak out.”
To deal with that, training sessions sometimes feature mega-smell targets, like a cooler full of material.
“The dog finds it and is like, ‘This is crazy,'” Marsillo said. “But it helps them get past that point.”
Search dog certification can be obtained from multiple organizations in the United States. Marsillo’s dogs are certified by the National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR), out of Centreville, Va.
Many people ask Marsillo what traits make a dog a good search dog.
“People always want to know if I use Shepherds or Labs,” Marsillo said. “I tell them it’s not breed-specific; it’s based on the dog’s personality. The dog has to have a lot of drive, and there are two kinds of drive: prey drive and hunt drive. The dog that chases a Frisbee and brings it back 500 times is kind of what we look for.
“Sometimes the dog you wouldn’t want for a house pet is a perfect search dog.”
Marsillo is a certified NASAR Search Technician 1, the highest of three levels. He said most of what he and his team members do is prepare.
“In search and rescue, it’s like with fire departments — all you do is train,” Marsillo said. “And when you train, you train like it’s for real. You hope you never have to use it, but when something happens, training kicks in and reality becomes like another training session.”
Marsillo said that many law enforcement agencies have been guilty in the past of waiting too long to call in the dogs.
“They wait until they exhaust all of their other methods, but that can take five or six hours,” he said. “Here, when someone calls 911 and reports a missing person, the way it works now is law enforcement gets the first call, K-9 gets the second call and fire department gets the third.”
Marsillo’s dog facility features kennels with flooring that can be easily hosed off. There’s also a dog obstacle — or agility — course and enough kennel space to allow teams from other areas to bring their dogs for training sessions.
“I can put up about eight people in the house,” he said, “and their dogs can stay with a roof over their heads and fresh water.”
There are nine search regions in Missouri. Region G covers nine counties, including Carter, Douglas, Howell, Oregon, Ozark, Reynolds, Shannon, Texas and Wright.
The Region G K-9 Search Team averages about two calls per month, but got seven in May. The unit recently obtained 501C-3 status, but it’s still an entity that exists because its members decide to make it exist.
“We don’t get paid for this,” Marsillo said. “I cover nine counties with nine sheriff’s departments. I’ll do a presentation and I’ll have some of them lean back in their chair and ask, ‘How much is this going to cost me?’ I say, ‘Nothing,’ and they say, ‘Well, who funds you?’
“I say, ‘Joe funds me.'”
Marsillo, 63, points out that self-funding is not exclusive to Missouri search and rescue teams.
“Throughout the country, your K-9 search teams are all volunteers,” he said. “All of the equipment we buy comes out of our own pockets. If we get any funding, I’d probably use it to send people to seminars so they can learn from someone who knows.
“But it’s worth it; there’s a need for this, and I would encourage people to utilize it.”
(other public service affiliations in parentheses)
-Joe Marsillo, coordinator, Cabool (City of Houston FD, Region GRegional Response Team – West Plains, Texas County LEPC)
-Dustin Blair, Rogersville (City of Houston FD)
-Sgt. John Blair, Elk Creek (National Guard -Active Duty,Raymondville FD)
-Kimberly Blair, Elk Creek (Raymondville FD)
-Mike Burgess, West Plains
-Al Corte, Glenco, Ark. (Glenco FD)
-Robert Ellsworth, Raymondville (Texas County EMD, Texas CountyLEPC, Raymondville FD)
-Anita Evangelista, Springfield
-Beth Hartman, Willow Springs (U.S. Forest Service)
-Byron Kruse, Houston (City of Houston FD, Houston Rural FD,Raymondville FD)
-A.J. Morton, Houston (City of Houston City FD)
-Johnna Perkins, St. Clair
-Sandra Perry, Thayer
-Larry Wildhaber, Raymondville (City of Houston City FD,Raymondville FD)