The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season officially begins June 1, and for Jackie Johnson, a professor of mechanical, aerospace, and biomedical engineering in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Tickle College of Engineering, that means working with her search dogs, Gizmo and Crush, to aid in rescues after catastrophic storms. Once they arrive, the three help find survivors trapped in the rubble and retrieve the bodies of those killed.
On October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida Panhandle, causing disastrous damage to Mexico Beach and Panama City. The hurricane was the strongest storm on record in the Panhandle and the third most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall in the US since 1969. The 155 mph winds flattened numerous homes and felled countless trees.
The aftermath of the storm was horrific, with streets filled with piles of debris and ruins, power outages, and hundreds of missing persons.
Johnson, a K9 handler for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue Tennessee Task Force 1, spent 11 days helping with search and rescue efforts in Mexico Beach, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Michael.
Johnson is on call every third month to help if the task force is deployed. There are 28 task forces in the US, and deployments depend on geography, a national rotation, and the rotation within each task force. “As individuals, we don’t deploy often, but the team deploys two to three times per year to the big events,” said Johnson. “In general, I personally will deploy to a big event every one to two years, interspersed with a few local human remains searches.
“Hurricane Michael was the biggest event I have been to and the most rewarding—the scale of damage was enormous,” added Johnson.
Both of the dogs that deployed with Johnson are certified by FEMA. Gizmo serves as a live find disaster dog and Crush as a human remains dog.
On a search, the dogs are trained to bark if they think they may have found a survivor or body.
“My job on the rubble pile is to point to where the rescue crews should dig and move on,” said Johnson. “I may or may not hear if they found anyone, and I don’t in general see any human remains—although we train with human remains and sometimes whole bodies.”
A great deal of the work during the deployment was searching areas where no one was found, termed blank areas; the team also had some positive finds and were able to bring some closure to families.
Crush is a Belgian Malinois and belongs to Johnson. Gizmo is a black Labrador that belongs to the task force and lives with another handler, but Johnson certified with him so she could be deployable while certifying her own dog.
There are fewer than 400 dogs in the US certified by FEMA, and Crush was certified only four days before being deployed to Florida.
Johnson started search and rescue in 2005 with a German Shepherd named Largo as a live find wilderness search dog. Over the years, she has had several dogs and trained a couple for the task force.
The dogs go through two years of extensive training to be certified.
She recently certified her own live find disaster dog, a pit–collie rescue named Coco. She is currently training a Malinois–Dutch Shepherd mix named Gabby. “She is a former drug dog but decided she didn’t like drugs,” said Johnson.
Johnson is honored that she and her dogs were able to help after Hurricane Michael and experience firsthand how all of the training she and the dogs have gone through pays off.
David Goddard (865-974-0683, firstname.lastname@example.org)