Tao, who has worked as Andy’s partner since 2005, says Andrea’s memory is etched in his heart. “I hope Andy and I can do something really good one day to carry on Andrea’s legacy,” he says. “I feel a lot of responsibility as a handler, because if we search someplace and say nobody is there, then we’re not leaving anybody behind. On top of that, there’s the memory of this great young woman. And she and her family are always with us.”
Tao called the Habermans when he and Andy were deployed to hurricanes Gustav and Ike. “I told them we’re heading to the hurricanes and hopefully we’d be out there helping people.”
That same desire to help people—particularly those injured during a disaster or terrorist attack—was the motivating force behind Melville’s decision to establish the SDF. Her inspiration came when she and her dog Murphy responded to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla.
“That bombing opened my eyes to the national need for certified canine search teams,” Melville says. “When that happened, there were only 15 of these teams in the nation.” Melville decided to fill the void. “I knew how to train a dog—I had a relationship with a trainer, and I knew if I put my mind to it, we could come up with a faster, better and more cost-effective way to do this.”
Back then, Melville says, it took a dog and handler about three to four years to become FEMA-certified. Her organization has slashed that time in half. Now, she says, “It takes six to eight months to train the dogs. The dogs are then assigned to their handlers, and it takes them about a year to get ready for the FEMA test. There’s no other organization that does what we do the way we do it. We give highly trained dogs to firefighters at no cost at all to them or their departments, and we stay with them throughout their careers.”
The foundation doesn’t receive government funds to cover the more than $10,000 required to train each team and provide lifetime care for the dog. As a nonprofit organization, the SDF pays those costs with donations from individuals and foundations. “We’ve actually been the leader in this field, and instrumental in greatly increasing the number of canine search teams out there,” Melville says.
The organization now has 69 search teams. The FEMA certification standard that many have is what sets these canine teams apart from others trained in water, avalanche, cadaver or wilderness search. And unlike other canines in public service, disaster search dogs must attain this certification to do their jobs.
FEMA Type One Advanced Certification is the highest level of urban search certification recognized in the U.S. To pass the advanced FEMA certification test, a dog must search two piles of rubble and find four to six victims. The dogs have only 20 minutes to complete this mission, and the testers try to distract them. For example, they may put food, live chickens or even cats in the piles of rubble. If the dogs become distracted, they fail the test.
“Our mission is to strengthen the disaster response in America,” Melville says. “It’s not that we do it all. We are one piece of the disaster network.” In recent years, SDF’s teams have deployed as first responders to urban emergencies across the board—including such crises as earthquakes, mudslides, hurricanes, building collapses, missing children, derailed trains and, of course, the 9/11 attacks.
“I’m proud of having come up with this organization,” Melville says. “I never started this by saying I’m going to change the way of doing disaster searches in this country. But people have watched our successful methods and emulated many of them.”
Melville isn’t resting on her laurels, though. The 75-year-old grandmother plans to open a national training center in California for handlers and dogs; SDF has secured 125 acres for the estimated $16 million facility. She also wants to expand SDF’s Bark Force, a group of volunteers who comb animal shelters for potential dogs. “If we can find the characteristics we’re looking for in a rescued dog, then we’re relieving the pet overpopulation problem. And we’re giving these high-energy dogs—who are difficult for most families to adopt—a job.”