A dog's nose knows, and when it comes to finding missing people quickly, it's tops.
A trained and certified search and rescue dog can find a person more than 80 percent faster than an entire team of human searchers, something that could mean the difference between finding a missing person alive or dead.
A Fairview Heights man knows this, and discovered the only official canine search and rescue team in the region was based in St. Louis. He joined the St. Louis search and rescue team and decided that because there was none based in the metro-east, he would start his own nonprofit team dedicated to helping local agencies find missing people.
"Before I knew it, I was training a dog," said Ron Edwards, president of the all-volunteer group, SAR K9 Co-Op Inc. in Fairview Heights.
Edwards started the team to help federal, state, county and city emergency responders find people who are lost, trapped, incapacited or deceased, free of charge. Since he started it, the group has grown, but Edwards' dog, Rock, is the only certified search and rescue dog on the team so far. Rock, a 2 1/2-year-old black Labrador mixed breed, has achieved the highest level of certification for a search dog through the National Association for Search and Rescue.
"I'm not bragging, but he's fantastic," said Liz Edwards, Edwards' wife.
During a practice search of an 80-acre, heavily wooded property at night, Rock found the "missing" person in two minutes flat, Ron Edwards said. The same search might take a team of people all night to comb the woods, climbing up and down hills, trying to find a missing person.
"I lucked out and got a really, really good dog," he said, scratching behind the ears of the playful, eager dog.
The other team members either have dogs in training for certification or are support staff to help in the field with organizing a search. Some of the team are searching for the perfect dog to train and certify as a search and rescue dog. It takes a year, or longer, to certify a dog to find a person, said Edwards, who is a retired drafting technician.
Steve Cleveland of Caseyville, a firefighter for Fairview Heights and French Village, hopes to find his search and rescue dog soon so they can start training toward certification. Or rather, he's waiting for the perfect dog to find him.
"We're all about helping people in need," Cleveland said of the team. "I want to help out and lend my expertise and help them do good. My whole idea is the dog will find you, the dog will pick you. I'm shooting for a lab, or, maybe a German shepherd."
Cleveland has two dogs at home, but they are pets, not working dogs, he added.
Another member, Darrell Coons, of Belleville, works for the Alzheimer's Association and knows how crucial it is to find a missing Alzheimer's patient quickly.
"We're in this to get as many people back home alive as we can," he said. "Because when a person is missing, it is an emergency."
He added that 25 percent of Alzheimer's patients are found dead after being missing for 12 hours and that number jumps to more than half if they are missing for more than 24 hours. Finding them fast is the highest priority.
Edwards' wife, Liz Edwards, is certified to help organize a search and has been trained in the most effective ways to find a missing person as quickly as possible. She will train more volunteers as ground support people to help the canine teams search as effectively as possible. The team is on call-out status in 19 counties in Illinois and Missouri but the group wants more emergency agencies, such as police departments, fire departments and other emergency workers, to know they exist and are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to put the teams to work to find missing people.
Ron Edwards and Rock have assisted in 13 searches so far, and 11 of those searches were for Alzheimer's patients, Edwards said, something they expect to see more of as the population ages. Joe Bertie of O'Fallon is a member and husband and wife Steve Bolt and Lesa Bolt of Smithton are also members. Lisa Bolt is training her dog to become certified to search for cadavers. The Fairview Heights-based team is a "sister team" with the Canine Search and Rescue Association in St. Louis. The two groups train together and can call upon each other to help with searches if needed.
SAR K9 Co-op Inc. is looking for more volunteers to train and become certified to assist in search and rescue operations, both as handlers and as ground support people. They don't have to have a dog to volunteer to help. Volunteers should enjoy the outdoors, be physically able to handle being out in all kinds of conditions and want to help people, Liz Edwards said.
"Because if we have a search, it's probably going to be at 2 a.m. in a few inches of snow or in the rain," Ron Edwards said. "And, they should have a love for dogs, or love to work with dogs."
The team offers training to volunteers so they can become certified through the National Association for Search and Rescue and Ron Edwards will help volunteers find a suitable dog, if they are interested in training one to become a certified search and rescue animal. More information about the national search and rescue organization can be found at www.nasar.org.
For more information about SAR K9 Co-op Inc. or to learn how to become involved with the team, call Ron Edwards at 618-531-6785 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact reporter Jennifer A. Schaaf at email@example.com or 618-239-2667.