In a massive explosion in the port of Beirut in early August, more than 170 people were killed, and an estimated 6,000 people were injured. Hundreds of search and rescue experts from various organisations worldwide came to the Lebanese capital to support the people after the devastating explosion. Among them was the IRO Classifier Denis Laus, who, along with his dog Sheeva, supported the search for buried victims as part of the thirteen-member team of the German organisation @fire – Internationaler Katastrophenschutz Deutschland. We had a chance to talk to him.
Denis, tell us a little bit about yourself and your dog Sheeva?
I am General Manager of a hotel in Paris and got involved in search and rescue dog work because of my wife. Meanwhile I am a passionate search and rescue (SAR) dog handler for seven years. We spend every weekend and every holiday to train with our dogs or to extend our own knowledge through further courses.
My partner on four paws is Sheeva, a seven-and-a-half-year-old Malinois male. He is my first dog and so we both started our training to become a professional SAR dog team from scratch. Today, Sheeva is a trained search and rescue dog in the disciplines Area and Rubble.
I am with @fire for four years and we have already completed several national missions together with the German firefighters. The recent deployment in Lebanon was our first international mission.
Where were you when you received the notification that you were going to Lebanon to support the search for missing persons in Beirut?
I was in Paris when I got the notification. Right after the disaster, my colleagues and I started to follow the reporting closely and prepare for a possible relief mission. Already Tuesday night my bags were basically packed and Sheeva and I were ready to go. Wednesday morning, we received the direct invitation of the Lebanese Government, requesting international assistance. The @fire task force then set off in two stages for Beirut. Seven people from our USAR Light Team (USAR = Urban Search and Rescue) had already travelled to the crisis region on Wednesday evening. Six more volunteers, including myself and Sheeva, arrived on Thursday.
The challenge for me was to get from Paris to Frankfurt. Usually I travel by plane, but this time I had to take the car. Due to COVID-19 there is currently only one flight per day from Paris to Frankfurt.
Apart from that, what influence did COVID-19 have on the overall deployment?
The entire team had to take a PCR test before departure and upon arrival at the Beirut – Rafic Hariri International Airport. Until we got the results, we had to remain in quarantine in our base quarters. We used the time to prepare our technical equipment.
After you got the all-clear, what happened next?
Sheeva and I were able to start searching on Friday morning. Each country was assigned a specific sector. Together with the search units of the German organisation THW (Technisches Hilfswerk) we searched for survivors with technical equipment and search and rescue dogs in the port area, one of the worst affected parts close to the centre of the explosion. Every morning before we started the search, we met with our THW colleagues for a joint briefing to discuss the further procedure. There were also daily meetings with the team leaders of all other international organisations. In total, there were eleven USAR teams on site.
The picture we got when we arrived in the assigned search area was shocking. Compared to an earthquake the search area was rather small, but for an explosion it was huge, and the extent of damage was enormous. Within a radius of two kilometres of the explosion, no window was left unbroken.
In your opinion, what was the biggest challenge for the search and rescue dog teams?
The heat and high humidity made the work of the dogs even more challenging. Already at 8 a.m. the heat was oppressive due to the humidity. Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. the heat load was particularly high, so we had to adapt the search to the conditions accordingly. Under such conditions it is important to always have enough water for the dog but also for oneself. Many search and rescue dogs also wear special cooling vests to support thermoregulation. Due to security reasons, we were not allowed to work at night. We were always surrounded by the army wearing loaded guns, even during the day. It was kind of a queasy feeling.
Another difficulty was the glass, which was scattered everywhere. A search in a warehouse where bottles of alcohol were stored was particularly dangerous for our dogs. The risk of injury for the dog by the splinters of glass bottles is much higher than, for example, by shards of broken windowpanes. Even wearing boots would not protect the dogs sufficiently from injuries caused by the fine, pointed glass splinters. For this reason, I also stopped the search of Sheeva in the warehouse. Sheeva and I are a team and it is my responsibility to assess the situation and ensure his safety. Since, after thorough examination, human search was possible in that part of the building without danger, I decided not to send him in but to search the rubble field myself. It certainly took me a few minutes longer than Sheeva would have needed, but in the end, it was the only right decision.
Why is the deployment of search and rescue dogs after such disasters so immensely important?
To go faster and deeper in searches. It is also safer for the buried victims. It makes a difference whether a person with around 70 kilos is searching the rubble field or a dog with 25 kilos. We are always working in pairs of two search and rescue dog teams. My colleague Lars Prößler and the IRO certified dog Apple formed a search unit together with us. First, one of our dogs searches the area for survivors. Then the same area is searched by the second dog to confirm the result. When it is certain that there are no more survivors under the rubble, the area is cleared for the cleaning process. This approach is particularly efficient.
How long did the searches last?
The searches lasted only for two days. On Saturday, four days after the explosion, it was clear that there were no more survivors under the rubble in any of the search areas.
When you came back from Beirut how did the rest of the week look like for you both?
We came back on Monday, 10 August and already on Wednesday I went back to work. Sheeva was pretty exhausted the first two days after our return, but shortly after that he was back to his old self. The weekend after our return our training focused a lot on motivation and easy work for him. Since the dogs did not find any survivors during the mission, it is important to motivate the dogs again. On site we did not have much opportunity to do so, but of course we did some small trainings in between to keep up the motivation. This is vital for the dog and the whole search operation.
Is there a particular memory that you take home from the mission?
The situation is really devastating for the locals. Many have lost their homes or even loved ones. With our dogs, we have managed to give the people a smile, at least for a short moment. Many have taken pictures of us and especially the dogs. The atmosphere was very friendly.
You and Sheeva are an IRO certified team, how important is the IRO Mission Readiness Test for you personally? Did the IRO Training help you, being prepared for missions like that?
Certainly yes. Completing realistic training scenarios provides the necessary experience and routine to act purposefully in an emergency. Above all, the confirmation of the mission readiness of your dog by independent classifiers gives you confidence. We completed our first Mission Readiness Test (MRT) in 2017 and successfully completed the reclassification two years later.
One final question: How often do you train with Sheeva per week?
Until Sheeva was five years old, we were training three times a week. And obedience training happens of course every day. Nowadays, training is reduced a bit, also due to COVID-19. But we still train as often as possible and I do a lot for my own personal education too. For example, I am taking an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) course, provided by the Red Cross in Paris, to be also able to help the team on the field even my dog cannot work.
Denis, many thanks for taking the time to do this interview with us. We look forward to seeing you at the IRO Trainer Module II in September.