Scotland’s cleverest canine was back in East Kilbride this week to sniff out casualties in a simulated disaster mission.
Diesel, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s only urban search and rescue dog, was in town to hone his skills one year on from his first overseas deployment to Nepal following the country’s devastating earthquake which killed 8000 people.
The seven-year-old English Springer Spaniel and his handler Gary Carroll, who grew up in Calderwood, took advantage of the town’s specialist rope rescue unit at East Kilbride Fire Station to boost his four-legged friend’s experience for real-life missions.
The testing task came ahead of a weekend of simulated disasters at the fire service’s impressive new purpose-built training facility in Cambuslang.
Former Hunter High pupil Gary (45), who is an instructor in the fire service’s training department in Aberdeenshire, where he now lives with his wife Marianne and two children Scott (18) and Fraser (15), took some time out to speak to the News about the dangerous tasks this dynamic duo have to face together to save lives.
Gary said: “As well as visiting family this week I was taking advantage of East Kilbride Fire Station’s rope rescue unit.
“Being part of the fire service’s international search and rescue team we join up with a few key fire services to travel overseas which means Diesel has to get used to travelling by helicopter, boat, and all sorts of other modes of transport.
“It takes 18 months to two years to train an urban search and rescue dog. He has to get used to being lowered down from a height or being wedged up high, finding a trapped casualty under rubble or in a collapsed building or searching for a vulnerable missing person in an open area.
“We’ve got to train for all these different scenarios so he gets used to being in his harness.
“He’ll be attached to myself and we will abseil down the side of the multi-storey training facility.
“It doesn’t phase him at all he just sits in his harness quite happily looking around at the scenery – he’s well used to it since he was a pup.”
After his mother failed to make the grade, Diesel was selected out of her litter of puppies as the best candidate to train as an urban search and rescue dog.
Gary explained that an ideal search dog must show a keen interest in playing with a tennis ball or toy so he can be trained to seek out the scent of a human to find live casualties.
And, Gary says, games of hide and seek at home with his family play a key part in Diesel’s training.
“In training we can’t just have an adult male hiding all the time, we have to have male, female and child ‘casualties’,” said Gary.
“My wife and my two boys have done a lot for me – I couldn’t actually do my job without my partner and my children.
“Between the three of them they’ve done an awful lot of hiding!
“We’ve got purpose-built collapsed structures both in the new fire and rescue training centre in Cambuslang and up in Aberdeen.
“They go in and crawl about underneath pipes for me or hide in a derelict school or hospital. I feel like a taxi driver at times – I just take Diesel and he does the job for me!”
Diesel is also the only device the Scottish fire service has for detecting unconscious or deceased casualties, which was sadly the case when the nose of the dog sniffed out some of those who had perished in the Nepal earthquake last April.
Gary added: “He didn’t find anyone alive but did find a couple of deceased victims which is the next best thing because it gives closure to the families and they can get their loved one’s body home.
“When Diesel does detect a live body he alerts me with a focused bark over the top of where the strongest scent is coming from then, aided by listening devices and cameras, myself and the rescue team will make attempts to remove the rubble and debris and try to make contact with the victim underneath.
“Diesel won’t stop barking till he gets his toy.”
As well as Nepal, Gary has assisted in earthquake recovery efforts in Sumatra, Indonesia, in 2009, and Christchurch in New Zealand in 2011.
Now, along with Diesel, he is on call to help search for survivors of collapsed buildings, tsunamis, and earthquakes anywhere around the world.
And, although he always has concerns about sending his companion into dangerous buildings, he’s confident both himself and Diesel take all of the appropriate precautions due to their particular set of skills and experience.
Gary said: “Diesel is a vital piece of equipment for the fire service – we’d struggle without him.
“As soon as he’s in work-mode he’s totally focused on his job. He’s switched on and knows exactly what he has to do to get that ball or toy.
“He doesn’t realise he’s working, he just sees it as continued play – a big game – and once he’s located the live scent his reward is a toy.
“Yes he gets sent into dangerous environments but we take every precaution we can to look after him.
“He even has his own personal protective equipment – if there’s broken glass he has his own protective boots, torches attached to his body to see in the dark, a harness for working heights and a flotation device for water.”
Gary revealed it is nearly time to train up a new canine recruit as Diesel looks to retire in a few years.
He added: “As long as he’s healthy and happy and enjoying the work I’ll keep him going but I will be looking to take on a new dog in the next year or so because it takes two years to train them.
“So by the time the new dog is ready to go Diesel will be ready for retirement.
“It will be a sad day when he does have to retire – we’ve gone through this journey together – but he will have earned it, he’s worked incredibly hard.”