The Night Shift

The phone rings a little after one o’clock in the morning. Someone isn’t where they are supposed to be. Someone may need help.

The scenarios can be remarkably varied, yet surprisingly consistent from the SAR responder’s perspective. Not to say that all call-outs are at night (although sometimes it seems that way), but the timing can often go something like this. The hiker, hunter, or mushroom picker doesn’t make it home for dinner. Their family waits a while, then checks a few likely spots, and eventually notifies the local police agency. It’s later in the evening now. The local police agency responds, gathers more information, conducts their own investigation and preliminary searches, and calls in additional internal resources as required. Night has fallen by now. Still no luck.

Now its time to request the trained volunteer SAR members. And the SAR dogs.

The conversation on the late-night phone call is concise and professional: a quick description of the nature of the incident; a rendezvous point; and a contact person. You’ll get more information on scene.

Your search dog is sitting there staring at you impatiently, with that “let’s get this show on the road” expression on his face. He’s been through this before and knows what the phone call means. Time to work.

The job at hand is to get ready and get there as soon as possible. This is where the Boy Scout motto, “be prepared”, comes in handy. Your SAR equipment is packed and ready to go. Depending on the time of year, it may already be in your vehicle. But it’s not just your equipment that’s ready.

As the old adage goes, “train like you fight – fight like you train.” So, you and your dog have trained at night and are comfortable in that low-light environment. You’ve done article searches and areas searches in the dark. The dog has lights on his collar and his harness, you’ve got a headlamp and a handheld flashlight, and there are spare batteries in your pack. You’ve also practiced tracking at night, with it’s challenging footing and hidden obstacles. You know what its like to push bush in the dark (and did I mention the rain and cold?). You’re at ease with night navigation, including GPS, compass, map reading, and good old-fashioned dead reckoning.

Despite the obvious challenges of reduced visibility, there are also advantages to working a search dog at night. There are generally fewer distractions, cooler temperatures (a good thing in the heat of summer), higher relative humidity, and lighter winds. All of which can increase the effectiveness of a search dog.

Urban search and rescue training scenarios often run around the clock to simulate successive operational periods that might be encountered in a real disaster situation. A night search on a rubble pile and an interior search of a collapsed and darkened building come with their own risks. But that’s why you and your dog train in these realistic settings – to be ready for the real thing.

So, what happened in our hypothetical late-night callout? Well, you got to the command post just as word arrived that the missing person had returned home safely from a friend’s house.

Stood down – all’s well that ends well. Time to let the dog stretch his legs, maybe a quick article search as a reward for the dog, and then back home for a sliver of sleep before its time to get ready for your day job.