When an elderly person with dementia goes missing or a tornado obliterates an entire town, there’s a volunteer team that law enforcement, fire departments and emergency management agencies can count on for assistance 24/7, Midwest Search Dogs (MSD).
MSD is the oldest nonprofit K-9 search and rescue team in Indiana and offers services free of charge to local, state and federal agencies throughout the Hoosier state and entire Midwest. Notable examples of MSD’s involvement in search and rescue operations include the 2005 Evansville, Ind., and 2011 Joplin, Mo., tornadoes.
Currently, the MSD team includes eight K-9s, seven handlers and four field and incident command members. Connie Swaim ’83 is a two-year team member and handler, and Emily Norcross ’08 is in her inaugural year as public information officer. For both women, MSD is a labor of love.
“The K-9s and handlers must undergo intensive certification and periodic re-certification processes to serve with MSD,” said Norcross. “Given that MSD is a nonprofit, the handlers invest their own significant resources to qualify for the team, which serves the public for free.” Norcross added that grants and private donations help cover some costs for equipment the team shares.
For the humans, training involves CPR classes and navigation skills tests along with civics. The K-9s undergo training of one-to-two years, depending on specialization area. Some dogs excel at human remains detection while others perform best at tracking down the living.
Swaim’s dog, Condor, a 4-year-old German Shepherd, is certified in human remains detection. She works full time as director of canine training for the Indianapolis Humane Society and is involved with MSD because she believes in its mission.
“Every time we deploy our dogs, they’re in harm’s way,” said Swaim. “That’s not a risk we take lightly, but we provide search and rescue services so others may live.”
The key to handling the K-9s, said Swaim, is trust.
“Handlers have to trust in the obedience, and the dogs have to trust in our communication. We and the dogs are looking for clues not only related to the missing person but to circumstances that have the potential to cause harm. The dogs constantly give us cues.”
In March, Swaim and Norcross helped MSD host a visiting police officer from England. Martin Pemble, the recipient of a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship, was investigating how search and rescue operations are conducted in the United States.
“My particular interest in search and rescue is not just deployments, but how it is taught, how different organizations are trained and deployed and how we in the UK can adopt good practices that have been tried and tested,” said Pemble. “MSD is the most organized search team I’ve visited so far.”