Buildings with mock disaster damage being constructed to train search dogs

By JOHN SCHEIBE | Ventura County (Calif.) Star | Published: May 31, 2014

SANTA PAULA, Calif. — Dozens of military personnel have labored six days a week since April 1 northwest of Santa Paula, building what designers say will look like a Hollywood movie set when completed in late summer.

The project will include a house, store and hotel.

But there’s a catch: All three structures are being built to look as if they’ve been through a big earthquake, explosion or other megadisaster.

Designers of the project at the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation compound, about 4 miles outside Santa Paula, are faced with making sure the buildings are structurally sound while appearing to be unstable.

They’ll be used to help train dogs and their handlers to find people in post-disaster rubble.

“This is definitely not a standard project,” said LeAlan Hafner, a captain with the Army Reserve who is overseeing construction at the 125-acre compound along Wheeler Canyon Road.

Hafner and other Army reservists, together with a group of Navy Seabees, volunteered for the project to get construction training needed for future deployments, Hafner said.

Dogs and their handlers will be sent scurrying through the buildings looking for “survivors” in the rubble. “We’ll use live people for the dogs to look for,” some buried deep inside a mound of concrete debris, foundation Executive Director Debra Tosch said.

The buildings are the first phase of what she called a “disaster training zone.” Future projects include construction of a simulated collapsed freeway and wrecked train.

Dogs and their handlers have been using the Wheeler Canyon facility since it opened about 18 months ago.

Dogs trained by the foundation have been used to search for people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New York City’s World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks, Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and elsewhere.

The cost of the construction labor and some of the equipment is being picked up by the military, Hafner said. The military personnel are being housed at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, Hafner said.

The foundation was started by Wilma Melville, a retired teacher sent to Oklahoma City with her search dog, Murphy, to look for survivors after the federal building bombing in 1995. Melville said she was astounded to learn the United States had only 15 search dog teams at the time, so she created the foundation to increase the number.

Many of the animals used as search dogs were rescued or donated. Many have a lot of drive and energy, and while they may not be desirable for home adoption, they are ideal for search and rescue, officials say.


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