After a magnitude 7.1 earthquake shook Mexico City on September 19th, the K-9 Unit of the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy (SEMAR, per its Spanish acronym) deployed its canine teams for search-and-rescue operations to find people who were trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings. The deployment of the teams was within the framework of Plan MX, which, for the first time in the country, is being used for coordinating and uniting the capacities of all government emergency agencies.
“When an earthquake hits, canine search and rescue teams are an important tool at a global level,” Commander Israel Monterde Cervantes, chief of SEMAR's K-9 Unit, told Diálogo. “Their efficiency saves us time getting to people who are still alive.”
The dogs stood out for their skill looking through the remains of different collapsed buildings. One of the dogs, an eight-year-old labrador called Frida, has located over 50 people nationally and internationally, including 12 who were alive.
Frida, Ecko, and Evil fulfill their mission
“These dogs are heroes,” Verónica Rivas, a freelance accountant who was in the south of Mexico City during the quake, told Diálogo. “They represent hope and light for many families during a natural disaster like this brutal earthquake.”
In addition to working in Guatemala after the landslides that occurred there in 2015, and after the 2016 earthquake in Ecuador, Frida and her human guides were sent a few hours after the earthquake to look for anyone still alive under the wreckage of the Enrique Rébsamen School in the south of Mexico City, where 11 children were rescued. SEMAR reported that the bodies of 19 children and seven adults were also recovered.
The famous veteran dog reported to work on time with her personal protection equipment: a mask to protect her eyes from dust and irritants, synthetic boots to keep her paws from getting injured, and a military harness to protect part of her back and torso when she has to go up and down in difficult areas with the help of her handler. Frida is known around the world now, with her image being featured in the international media. In certain countries outside Latin America, she is even known as “Marina” [Navy in Spanish] because of the label on her harness.
“Frida always used her nose at the school, where it was hoped there would be indications of people who were possibly trapped,” Petty Officer Second Class Israel Arauz Salinas, a dog handler and trainer for SEMAR's K-9 Unit, said to Diálogo. The officer has been Frida's handler for the past three years.
“Of the naval institution's search-and-rescue teams, Frida is the dog with the most experience,” Cmdr. Monterde said. “Her intelligence and olfactory ability allows us to detect a person up to 10 meters below the rubble. She has something special in her way of being and in her temperament, and she has a sixth sense for the work she does.”
Ecko and Evil, two one-and-a-half-year-old Belgian malinois joined rescue efforts at the school. Later, they were deployed to other wreckage sties in the city to help support search missions. They covered at least 38 buildings that went down in the Mexican capital.
The teams worked in 30-minute shifts with one-hour rest breaks to recover their strength before going back into the collapsed structure to save lives. They carried out their work under difficult conditions: crowds of people, excessive noise, and rain.
“They cannot work for hours continuously. They are not athletic, high-performance dogs. They need time to recover, so they are rotated out during the missions,” Cmdr. Monterde explained. “But they were an important piece because they alerted us to the presence of people in the wreckage,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Arauz added.
These efforts were supported by at least 80 K-9 teams from federal and civilian bodies, which took part in the work to save lives. The Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that 32 K-9 units from partner nations such as the United States, Canada, Spain, Israel, Japan, Colombia, and Chile gave Mexico their unconditional support.
“The credit for the dogs' performance goes to their handler, who has to understand the canine's temperament and how they can work better,” Cmdr. Monterde said. “The guides know their companions very well. The two of them develop a unique connection, a natural connection.” The selected guides are given a high degree of training for working with dogs, their nutrition, maintenance, first aid, dog training, and collapsed structures.
SEMAR's K-9 Unit was created in the mid-1980s. It specialized in search-and-rescue teams after the major 8.1 magnitude earthquake in 1985, which left thousands dead, injured, and missing.
“We have advanced quite a bit since the '85 quake. We have had many advances in the area of protecting civilians,” Cmdr. Monterde stressed. “We are one of the best in this area in Latin America.”
To confront the challenges imposed by nature and the enemy, SEMAR has over 270 canine teams nationally, spread throughout the canine sections. The majority of the teams are specialists in detecting narcotics, currency, protection, aquatic rescue, and identifying explosives. Six teams comprise SEMAR's search-and-rescue team, four of which search for people and two locate human remains. “That might not seem like a lot, but it is a positive number,” Cmdr. Monterde said.
Frida, Ecko, and Evil were trained when they were three months old. The 14-month-long training was held in three stages: first, socialization with people; second, finding an object (toy or ball); and finally, identifying and recognizing scents that are similar to those of a person trapped in a collapsed structure. At the completion of these stages, the dogs were evaluated through physical and performance tests before they could begin their work.
Learning from partner nations
Working with other international rescue teams in emergencies allowed Mexican Navy members to learn other techniques for searching for and finding people. They have also had the opportunity to learn and use sophisticated equipment for detecting people.
“This set of experiences encourages us to do our work better,” Cmdr. Monterde said. “This joint effort was the result of the exchange of experiences and knowledge, both with the rescue teams and the canine teams. All of the exchanges we were able to do with the other countries is one of the lessons learned that we have to take into account,” he concluded.