Jeff Sells was overwhelmed when he first viewed the damage caused by the massive mudslide that struck Oso, Wash., on March 22.
“Everybody had seen pictures of the slide, but the pictures really didn’t do it justice,” said Sells, a captain with the Coeur d’Alene Fire Department. “You have that moment of awe when you first see it. The devastation was just more than I could have imagined.”
Sells and his 3-year-old black Lab, Otis, worked for 15 days with Washington Task Force 1, a FEMA urban search and rescue team, searching for missing victims. It was the first time the duo, one of 300 FEMA-certified teams, was deployed to a disaster area.
“He did good,” Sells said of his four-legged partner’s performance. “The dogs actually adjusted better than the people did because they would typically find better avenues of travel to work the areas than we did. They adapt pretty well.”
Sells said there was still a period of adjustment for all of the search dogs.
“Just getting across the slide was physically demanding,” Sells said. “The dogs would sink clear up to their bellies. It was really physically demanding for them. You were feeding your dog almost all day just to keep their energy levels up.”
A typical day for the team in Oso began at 5:30 a.m., with Sells making sure Otis was fed and taken care of.
During a briefing at 7 a.m., the task force would go over the day’s objectives and prepare to go out into their assigned divisions.
“It was a little unusual because this is the first time FEMA had done what’s called a ‘modular deployment,’ where they brought in 20 extra K9 teams from across the country,” Sells told the Coeur d’Alene Press. “So we had 10 of those teams assigned to us and the other 10 teams were assigned to California Task Force 7, a FEMA team out of Sacramento. Having 10 extra dogs was definitely a great help.”
Once prepared, groups of dogs and their handlers, rescue squads and other support personnel would begin their trek through the muddy terrain.
Around 5 p.m., the workday was complete and every member of the task force, including the dogs, went through decontamination.
“Usually everybody was just covered in mud and everything else that was out there,” Sells said. “The National Guard actually had some decontamination sites set up for the K9 teams. So the dogs would all get a shower at the end of the day.”
Sells added that the deployment took a toll on dogs, and the task force relied heavily on an on-site veterinarian.
“As the deployment went on dogs got injured, most of the injuries were pad injuries. She would get them wrapped up,” Sells said. “It seemed like every morning there was a line of dogs outside of her tent to get their feet wrapped up because they were injured.”
During the team’s time in Oso, Sells said the task force located several victims of the mudslide.
“When we did locate somebody it’s obviously sad, but there is a sense of accomplishment in being able to give these families closure,” Sells said. “During the deployment you sort of worked with so many of the residents that you really knew their names and quite a bit about the victims that you were searching for. Part of what we did, and part of our objective, was to help the community heal and recover. A lot of that recovery happens when loved ones are located.”
That feeling of satisfaction and teamwork among the task force, according to Sells, was the one positive thing about his work in the disaster area.
“The special thing about our operation was that it was a huge team effort,” Sells said. “There were no individuals on this task force. Everybody was committed to what we were doing.”
Sells added that the team effort extended back home to Coeur d’Alene and he thanked the community and the fire department for their support of the disaster dogs program.
“It wasn’t just what I had done. This was a huge team effort before I even went, and the fire department is hugely supportive of it,” Sells said. “It was a team effort, I just happened to be the guy who got called. It could have been any of our handlers. It just happened to be my turn. They share as much in this deployment and what we did as I do by going.”
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