Tampa Bay rescue crews explain how they find people in a building collapse

It starts with “live-find” K9s working the gaps, then cameras, engineers and extrication crews. All work to rescue without causing more harm.
Patron, a black Labrador with the Tampa Police Department, sits atop a pile of rubble used for training. Patron finds people trapped in collapsed buildings like the condominium in Surfside.
Patron, a black Labrador with the Tampa Police Department, sits atop a pile of rubble used for training. Patron finds people trapped in collapsed buildings like the condominium in Surfside. [ Lt. Brian Smithey/Tampa Fire Rescue ]
Published June 24, 2021|Updated June 25, 2021

There has been no call yet for first responders in the Tampa Bay area to help with rescue efforts following the collapse of an oceanfront condominium early Thursday some 260 miles southeast in Surfside.

But the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office said it remains in contact with authorities on the scene and agencies across the region say they’re trained and ready.

The Tampa, Hillsborough and St. Petersburg fire departments make up Urban Task Force 3. There are task forces across Florida that can be called to help if needed with rescue missions. Sometimes, as in the aftermath of hurricanes and floods, the task force is sent out of state to help across the Gulf region.

Hillsborough County Fire Rescue recently opened a new training center that includes a collapsed building site, said county spokesperson Chris Wilkerson. Tampa Fire Rescue has its own K-9 unit for disasters like Surfside’s, including Lt. Brian Smithey and his black Labrador retriever Patron.

There are two types of animals that work at building collapse scenes, known as low- and high-titration dogs, said Cheryl Hazelton, a former K-9 deputy with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and with the military. The dogs differ in how they’re rewarded — verbal praise for low-titration dogs, and toys and treats for the high-titration variety.

Patron would qualify as a high-titration dog, as are most dogs with the Tampa Fire Rescue K-9 unit.

Before the dogs are set to work, the building must be secured. Structural engineering crews must determine if the building is safe for the animals, Smithey said. Electric and gas utilities must shut off building connections, too, Hazelton said.

In May 2020, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office added its first “live-find” K9 — Labrador retriever Maddie. Maddie is part of the 30 K9 teams the Sheriff’s Office has set up with help from community contributions.

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“We can send the dogs in and in a number of minutes we can locate a live person,” Smithey said.

Patron is trained to find human scent. Often, the dogs cannot reach their target so they get as close as possible, stick their head toward the origin of the scent and bark loudly. A dog can fit in tighter spaces than humans, providing a marker for extraction crews.

During training, Smithey creates a variety of rubble scenes. Collapses are rarely similar. The dogs are seeking out real people during the training, but these “victims” carry toys as rewards.

“To the dogs, it’s just a big game of hide and seek,” Smithey said.

Once a dog locates a person, rescuers send cameras and listening devices through gaps in the rubble to pinpoint the location. Extraction crews work with engineers to follow the feeds so they won’t cause more damage or injury.

In Miami, it was unclear Thursday just how big a task rescue teams were facing. At least one person is dead and more deaths are feared. One official said 99 people were still unaccounted for.

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Sen. Marco Rubio said in a tweet that the right team was on the job: “@MiamiDadeFire has one of the best urban search and rescue teams in the world & they have been on the scene for hours searching for victims & survivors.”