Shortly after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria on Feb. 6, a Carpinteria man and his dog started preparing to look for survivors.
Bob George, a captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, and Shadow, a specially trained search-and-rescue dog, have spent the past week and a half doing the difficult and heart-wrenching work of trying to find signs of life in the piles of debris left by the massive temblor and another 7.5-magnitude quake that hit hours after the first.
“Shadow is great at finding live people under rubble,” George’s wife, Amanda, said from their Carpinteria home. “Shadow’s been training for five years for this, and he’s one of the best search-and-rescue dogs that the county has, that the country has.”
They are one of several dog-and-handler teams from the United States trying to help find trapped people. They are part of Los Angeles County Fire’s Urban Search and Rescue team deployed to Turkey through the coordination of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) disaster response. The canines allow for rapid searches of collapsed structures.
“Their sense of smell is 100,000 times more powerful than a human’s, making them a vital resource in identifying potential rescue opportunities,” according to the fire department.
A number of search dogs were instrumental in finding survivors and carrying out rescues.
Unfortunately, Shadow had not found anyone alive as of Sunday, and the death toll had surpassed 46,000 across Turkey and Syria. This team arrived a few days after the earthquake hit, so the chances of finding people alive at that point had decreased dramatically already. In fact, by Feb. 19, many of the rescue efforts were winding down.
However, Shadow’s role has been no less significant regardless of the outcome of a particular search. The canine is able to provide an answer to loved ones anxiously gathered where someone is buried or trapped, even if that answer isn’t the one for which they had hoped.
“It seems like what they’re really doing is providing closure for a lot of people,” Amanda George said. “My husband states that there are just family members standing around a pile of rubble and saying, ‘Come here, help, my family is under.’ And when Shadow goes out and can’t detect a live scent, it gives those people an opportunity to then start the mourning process and to know that, yes, their loved ones are deceased.”
Bob George has shared with his wife that despite the loss of life and amount of destruction in the city of Adiyaman, where he has been searching, the people have treated the search teams well and with gratitude. They attempted to share whatever they had with the teams despite having practically nothing left themselves.
Shadow himself is a story of second chances. The black Labrador retriever mix was a young stray who went unclaimed and ended up at Rescue Ranch in Yreka in Northern California. It was at the rescue that staff noticed Shadow had characteristics of a good search dog. The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, based in Santa Paula, evaluated Shadow and went on to train him for search and rescue work.
Shadow graduated from the SDF program in January 2017. He was paired with Bob George, and the two have worked together at the Los Angeles County Fire Department ever since.
Bob George previously served in the U.S. military for 22 years, as a naval aviator and later in the Air National Guard, before deciding to enter the fire service. He joined L.A. County Fire in his 40s.
“He is an amazing man,” Amanda George said of her husband’s service.
This trip to Turkey is his first international deployment. He previously assisted with swift water rescues in Houston after the hurricane and flooding there.
Shadow lives with the George family in Carpinteria and goes to work every day, training constantly. Together, Bob George and Shadow achieved FEMA certification that allows them to deploy anywhere in the world with California Task Force 2 (CA-TF2) when disaster strikes.
This team and another based in Fairfax, Virginia, are the only two in this country fully developed and accredited to go on such deployments, Amanda George said. The Fairfax task force also sent crews on this deployment.
SDF states that Labrador and golden retrievers, border collies, and mixes of those breeds are the most likely to have the qualities needed for finding people.
“After a disaster, when buildings have crumbled to the ground, dogs can search much more quickly and safely than people can,” an SDF program overview states. “By training on simulated rubble piles where volunteer victims are hiding, the canines and their handlers prepare themselves to find people who would otherwise remain buried.”
Los Angeles County Fire reported that 82 of its members deployed to Turkey earlier this month at the request of USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance.
They left planning to stay for 10 to 14 days, but they brought enough provisions for three weeks, Amanda George explained. Another benefit to the devastated area is that any unused food and supplies at the time of the U.S. team’s departure will be donated to local crews in Turkey.
During this deployment, Amanda George has been holding down the fort at home with the couple’s three children in Carpinteria. Thanks to modern technology such as cellular service and Facetime, they are able to speak to each other most days. Bob George shares some of his experiences but spares many of the details when talking to his family, she said. Still, despite his tough exterior and years of experience as a first responder, she knows the devastation he is seeing is horrendous.
“He’s a very strong, tough man, and he can take that in and then kind of put it somewhere and still be able to be the family man and the father and husband,” she said.
She noted that the crews on the ground have a good amount of support in place, including for mental health, to get through the tough times. The community back home also has been quite supportive.
“To know that we have two local heroes right here, and what they’re doing and the sacrifice they’re making, I just want people to be aware that we’re lucky to have them,” Amanda George said.
Bob George was unavailable to comment directly for this article, but his wife’s information came from regular calls with him and from daily updates she received through the task force.
Read profiles of SDF’s rescue teams and learn more about the program at https://searchdogfoundation.org/search-teams/.
Those interested in supporting such efforts may donate directly to the nonprofit, non-governmental SDF to help train search dogs in the future: https://donate.searchdogfoundation.org/1170.
Another way to help is to donate to USAID’s verified aid organizations: https://www.cidi.org/disaster-responses/turkiye-earthquake/.