By Lori Altmeyer
Sirus, a docile red fox labrador retriever, works with Robinson Emergency Medical Services to find people in trouble.
Volunteer handlers Chief Michael Nemec and Sandy McGuire, assistant chief of Robinson EMS, have joint custody of the canine.
This team volunteers during search and rescue missions in Allegheny County and other neighboring counties as called upon. Robinson EMS obtained Sirus when the pup was 2 months old, McGuire said.
"Sirus is named after a yellow bomb sniffing hero who worked for the NY/NJ Port Authority. New York Sirus and his handler were assigned to the World Trade Center for bomb detection duty and was the only K-9 killed during the 9/11 attacks while working inside the Towers," Nemec said.
In September 2016, Sirus was taken to Pat Malloney for training. Malloney, a master K-9 trainer, determined after 45 minutes Sirus would be “excellent” for search and rescue.
Sirus earned his Search & Rescue certification through the International Police Work Dog Association. The group doesn't certify the dog, they certify the teams individually and require every dog to be 18 months old before they can be certified. Sirus was ready by the time he was one.
Sirus excelled and outperformed other canines during his certifications on a 40-acre testing area. McGuire's individual certification with Sirus took only seven minutes to complete with one hour allotted. Two hours later on the same day, Nemec's certification took a little longer because Sirus had to find two humans instead of one. Re-certification occurs every three years.
Training at the Monroeville Fire Training Academy under Malloney began with obedience training advancing into fun retrievals on all types of terrain. Sirus was exposed to high-stress environments, frequent field trips and new experiences turning him into the exceptional working dog he is today.
There are two different kinds of Search and Rescue dogs; track and trailing dogs, connected to a leash and use a scent article to find a person or cadaver and air scent dogs, which do not require a scent article to find a person.
"Sirus is an air scent dog, trained to look for live human scent only which complements our EMS work," said Nemec.
Sirus works a much broader area than a typical police K-9, which involves a completely different training module and a much smaller area.
"Sirus has a team, one member looking for the dog's cues and another looking for safety issues in any given area. Issues or safety hazards include nearby roads, waterways, cliffs, and other animals or hazards he may be exposed to during a mission," Nemec said.
Nemec and McGuire, have veterinarian training through Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio in case something would happen to their canine partner on-scene.
"A veterinarian paired with a health doctor with Allegheny Health Network put a course together to teach handlers how to treat their K-9s and themselves," Nemec said.
The vests Nemec and McGuire wear come equipped to care for any injuries the human or animal may incur at a scene.
To date, callouts are less and less for Sirus due to an increase in drone and GPS trackers. Thermal detection cameras are replacing the need for Sirus’ expert nose.
“This technology is going to eventually eliminate search and rescue dogs like Sirus," said McGuire.
Sirus and his handlers volunteer their time and are ready for work 24/7.
Robinson EMS is a non-profit organization and is not run by the township. In addition to Robinson, the ambulance service provides response to residents in Thornburg and Rosslyn Farms, too.
The ambulance service takes care of Sirus’ costs such as food, toys, equipment, and medical care.
The decision to use a drone or dogs on the ground is decided upon by whoever is in charge of any given area. Usually, the local emergency management coordinators make the decision of who to call out to a scene. McGuire said that several times the local fire department will cancel the call when they have access to a drone.
Sirus turns into a different dog when it's time to "work,” a word which is also one of the commands they use to get him ready. He jumps, barks, growls and needs to go to complete his find once called out. Sirus wears his vest equipped with a bell and a badge. If you happen to pick up the vest and he hears that bell, you see Sirus get serious.
"Sirus loves working, has fun doing it, and has his purpose in life," said Nemec.
To get to rescue is the greatest reward for Sirus.
"Always have to celebrate a find," said McGuire.
Sirus, now 6, continuously trains and will work until he can work no more. Leg issues usually keep older dogs from working at scenes. At 69 pounds, Sirus has had TBLO (equivalent to ACL in humans) surgery on both back legs. With plates and screws in both knees, Sirus can now run like a puppy again.
McGuire said to be in the presence of Sirus is to be in the presence of a fun-loving beautiful angel, "just look at his markings on the back of his shoulders.”
To McGuire, Sirus’ markings look like a pair of angel wings.
And maybe they are.