After 4 months of preparation the time had finally come. On 21 June we were on our way: Roeland and Brenda, with Lucca and Jente, and Monique from Eindhoven, and Edwin and myself with Oger and Elian from Schiphol, bound for Valencia/Algemesi for a 24 hour simulation exercise.
It was the first time that any of the dogs had been in a plane, and that was quite exciting for all of us. In Valencia we had hired cars and had been given the coordinates by base camp. The late afternoon sun was hot, very hot. The dogs were in an air-conditioned car and upon arrival at our base we left them there. The temperature had risen to 47 degrees Celsius. On a large terrain made up of asphalt, concrete and gravel a place had been reserved for us where we could pitch our tents. We couldn’t get the pegs into the ground so we had to be creative and use heavy stones and concrete blocks we found around us.
Later in the evening once the sun had gone down things became more bearable. On Friday we took it easy. In the afternoon we were joined by Ann Ceulemans who had come across from Ibiza. Just before the briefing we learnt that we would join the team from the Valencia fire brigade, a large group of happy go-getters. The briefing started at exactly 18:00, attended by Roeland and Edwin. Meanwhile we put on our overalls and were ready to go. At 19:00 we went to the sports hall where an extensive vetinary examination of the dogs was carried out.
At 20:45 we left for our first location. In the meantime it had got dark and the fire brigade first made a reconnoitre of the terrain in order to find and recover any victims they found. Then it was our turn. Oger and Jente were the first to be deployed. Both worked excellently and didn’t seem at all bothered by the journey, the different surroundings and the heat.
After that Elian and Lucca went to work. We worked as much as possible in pairs so that there were always 2 pairs of eyes to watch over the dogs. We encountered several difficulties at this location: deep holes and empty spaces where people were undoubtedly hidden. Narrow, steep steps sometimes 6 meters high rising to upper floors that we had to reach with our dogs so that these could be searched. Oger has got used to a lot over the years and is not fazed by being lifted. And going up the steps is no problem, but coming back down again can be quite nerve-wracking. So put into a harness and collar, and secured on 3 sides, we lowered him down. Later it was Elian’s and Lucca’s turn. Neither of them had any problem with being lifted and lowered. Elian was hoisted 6 meters high and lifted over a wall. I then assessed the situation and decided to let Elian search wearing a harness and on a long line. He did his job well and along a narrow ridge, 6 meters above the ground, he found his first victim. First he had to pass a dummy, and then to the real victim 5 meters further on. Somewhat surprised and in complete darkness he started to bark. I was so proud of my young dog. Later on he found another victim who was so well hidden that a roof and dividing wall had to be demolished to get in. This exercise had been put together very realistically. Elian picked up the scent and in order to home in on exactly where the victim was, the fire brigade had to make holes in the construction. Elian then had to indicate whether they were on the right track and then more holes were made and a large hole drilled. This was when Elian put his head through the hole and barked with conviction. The four of us then sat dozing on the roof while we waited for the victim to be recovered.
Once this had happened we were sent onto the next location. By now it was early morning and it was starting to heat up fast. We arrived at an old stone factory. Once again the fire brigade made the first exploration before we got to work. The dogs were black from the soot there. They worked very well considering the high temperatures. They found several victims which the fire brigade were then able to recover.
At 12:00 we called a halt to our search. It was even hotter at the next location so we decided to stop. It would have been irresponsible to continue. We returned to base together with the fire brigade. There was talk that the dogs who live in a warmer climate might well be able to deal with the heat better, and the fire brigade tried to get another team to carry on, but all other teams had decided to stop with temperatures now reaching 50 degrees celcius.
Now it might appear that everything was running along smoothly, but the language problems between the Dutch and the Spanish would have made things much more difficult if we hadn’t have had Ann with us. She acted as our interpreter and deserves an extra big “Thank you Ann”.
In the afternoon we washed off the sweat and dirt, and tired but fulfilled we packed up our gear. After the debriefing that evening we had a meal with the fire brigade from Valencia, the USAR teams from Portugal and France and the IAE. Early the next morning we took down our tents and left for the airport, where half the team left for Eindhoven, followed later by the rest who flew to Schiphol.
We can look back on a time filled with many learning moments, great experiences, excellent work from the dogs and a very fine team who can be fully relied upon to support each other when confronted with this sort of situation.