Slugger, an 11-year-old German Shorthaired Pointer dog, rushed headlong through the woods off West Watkins Mill Road in Gaithersburg on Saturday, a steady stream of barks echoing back to the team of Montgomery County police and search and rescue volunteers who were fast on his heels.
Minutes later, the search party came to a stop at the base of a large tree where Slugger sat barking, pawing and licking the face of a disheveled man who sat with his back to the tree, his left leg twisted awkwardly. Mid-Atlantic D.O.G.S. Search and Rescue volunteer Cindy Majane, Slugger’s handler, knelt over the man as a police officer called in their location to a team of field medics at the edge of the woods.
“You must be that 84-year-old man we’ve been looking for,” Majane said to the man against the tree.
“I have Alzheimer’s,” he said. “I can’t remember my name; but I was out here hiking.”
Even as the victim — who actually was fellow Mid-Atlantic dog handler Al Rossi taking part in a county police search-and-rescue training exercise — was helped into a stretcher, the training coordinators had radioed back the news: Rossi was not the man the team originally was sent out to find. The search was still on.
The exercise, the first of its kind in the area, was conducted by Montgomery County police to train its officers in effective ways to use not only the department’s impressive pool of resources, but also how best to cooperate with outside agencies, such as the Maryland-National Capital Park Police and the nonprofit Mid-Atlantic during search-and-rescue operations, said search coordinator Detective Jason Huggins.
“This is the culmination of 80 hours of [classroom] training; everyone’s coming together to see what we’ve learned,” Huggins said.
Nearby, Sgt. Kevin Parker, of the department’s Emergency Service Unit, prepped the county police’s support vehicles, a fleet of trucks designed to bring every conceivable piece of equipment a patrol officer might need — mobile generators, spare radios, ladders, extra ammunition, self-contained breathing apparatus and hazard suits, to name a few — to the scene of an incident.
“I started looking around [the department’s] Special Operations Division and I saw all this equipment that we weren’t using and I thought, ‘Why do we have tens of thousands of dollars of equipment when we’re not even using it?’” Parker said.
The trucks, in addition to responding to SWAT call-outs and emergency storm responses, also bring their resources to bear on the nearly 400 missing person cases handled by county police each year, Parker said.
The department’s K-9 unit also can be a great benefit to a missing person search, said K-9 Officer Tom Kelly. Aside from its patrol dogs — which mostly are German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois — the department employs a pair of bloodhounds to help in searches for missing persons, Kelly said.
“A bad guy you can catch another day, but if you’ve got a missing person you’re working on a timeline and you need to find them; their life could be in danger,” Kelly said as he ran Allie, a 3-year-old bloodhound, through a scent exercise Saturday. “My whole thing is, if you don’t bring your dog out to check, you’ll never know if you might have found something.”
Kelly’s unit becomes even more effective when joined with volunteer dog teams from groups such as Mid-Atlantic D.O.G.S. Search and Rescue, Rossi said, especially when the roles of sworn officers and search dog volunteers clearly are defined.
“They’ve used us off and on ever since we’ve been around, but you have to be patient and we have been,” Rossi said. “We can’t just show up at a search out of the blue, it needs to be a coordinated approach.”
Even Allie’s keen sense of smell has its limitations, though; rain, excessive heat, wind, passing motorists and hundreds of other factors can work to disperse a scent trail. Thankfully, the dogs are not alone; helicopters from the neighboring park police division, volunteers and fire and rescue resources all can be employed to help find a missing person, Huggins said.
“For the purposes of this exercise we’re looking for an 84-year-old dementia patient who went missing, but it wouldn’t matter if it was an 84-year-old guy or a 5-year-old kid; we have the blessing of tons of resources for these sorts of scenarios,” Huggins said.