Dogs, drones and firefighters team up to find missing people
A medically fragile 79-year-old man was reported missing Dec. 19 in Elmhurst.
The sun had set and temperatures were dropping. Besides using their own police dog, Elmhurst officials asked for help.
A DuPage County sheriff bloodhound arrived, and so did a new team run by firefighters from throughout the suburbs -- the K9/Drone Search and Rescue Strike Team, which formed in early 2020.
German shepherds Irie and Thor, their handlers, a third team member, and two people manning drones with heat-sensing cameras picked up the man's trail, which by then was seven hours cold.
The man was found, alive, but suffering from hypothermia.
The team has seven dogs with seven handlers and four drone operators. It takes on searches in Cook, DuPage, Will, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties, as well as the Rockford area.
Irie and the other dogs are also on the Illinois Urban Search and Rescue Team Task Force I, with certifications that allow them to be deployed nationwide.
Michael Vitale, a Lincolnshire firefighter, wanted to put Irie to use more frequently. Irie has a lot of energy and drive, and if she goes too long without training or working, well, the ottoman in Vitale's living-room suffers, as she starts to chew household items.
Plus, "We saw a need locally to use our canines and our resources," he said. A 2019 building explosion in Waukegan, where dogs were used to search for victims, "lit the fire to really get this going and push this out," he added.
Search dogs for firefighting are few and far between, Vitale said.
The team can supplement police dog teams, he said, especially when those teams have more pressing priorities, such as investigating crimes or hunting suspects.
"They (the K9/Drone searchers) are really here to assist you if you (the police) are getting backlogged," said Todd Baseggio, a West Chicago firefighter who is Thor's handler.
All the dogs are certified as Type I Live-Find dogs by the State Urban Search and Rescue Alliance. They have also been trained to meet police dog standards.
Baseggio said using drones with the dogs substantially increases the success of their missions.
The drones can see where the dogs are going. Drone operators can also alert the dog handlers about dangers and obstacles, such as coyotes that could spook the dogs or a change in terrain that could trip up the human handler, Baseggio said.
The team has been called on about a dozen times in the last six weeks. In one, they searched a junkyard and found a person who was having a mental health crisis. In another, police found a pile of clothes next to a pond and used the dogs to determine no one had gone in the water.
The team trains together six times a month, plus individually. One place they train during spring, summer and fall is a disaster pile the team built in West Chicago. It simulates the rubble dogs might encounter at a disaster.
Vitale sees the search team becoming another specialized aspect of firefighting work, much like hazardous materials, confined-space rescue and water rescue experts. "This is just another service," he said.
And while Elmhurst police publicly thanked the dogs and their handlers by name for their help in finding the missing man, Vitale and Baseggio stressed they don't want to be singled out as heroes.
"Everything we do we kind of take the team approach," said Vitale. "We are only as successful as the rest of the team."