Local firefighter's dog earns FEMA certification

Fred Elwell's German shepherd, Kaiser, recently completed his training to receive his Live Finds certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

NEWBURYPORT — Without his uniform on, Fred Elwell's dog Kaiser might look like an ordinary German shepherd. But don't be fooled; Kaiser is a search-and-rescue machine, and after three years of training, he's ready to chip in and help out local fire and police departments.

Elwell adopted Kaiser as an 8-week-old puppy while off work as a Newburyport firefighter because of an injury. The pair soon became inseparable, and when Elwell returned to the Newburyport Fire Department, he knew it was time for Kaiser to find work as well.

On his first birthday, Kaiser started training to receive his Wilderness Search certification from the International Police Working Dog Association. The dog began a series of tests and drills that would soon enable him to find a missing person within a 40-acre wilderness. And in early March, Kaiser, now 4, received his Live Finds certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, making him able to find victims in disaster settings.

Like all FEMA-certified rescue dogs, Kaiser's nose has proved to be a powerful tool that can potentially save lives. Elwell takes Kaiser for training sessions deep into the woods, where the dog is able to detect the scent of a hidden volunteer "victim" from great distances. And while a similar search-and-rescue mission could take a team of people hours or longer, Kaiser is able to locate the drill's "victim" within a matter of minutes. 

"Every time I see him search, it amazes me. He can smell people from a long way away," Elwell said.

Elwell and Kaiser are members of the Mark 9 wilderness search team, and recently filed an application for the Northeast Massachusetts Technical Rescue Team. While they can be of use to the city's public safety departments, they might also be called on to assist in searches in other parts of New England.

"We've become a resource for whoever wants us. Family could call us, the police could call us, the fire department could call us," Elwell said.

The path to Kaiser's certifications wasn't an easy one, and included various tests, drills and years of daily obedience training. Elwell noted Kaiser responds to basic commands such as "sit" or "stay," but he is also trained to quickly react to a set of commands from his FEMA training, all of which are in German. 

While Kaiser is generally friendly, he rarely acts as if he is off duty. If he catches the scent of a person behind a closed door, he will usually start barking. But while he usually can't wait to get back to work, Elwell said Kaiser enjoys sitting around and playing like most dogs.

"I give him free moments where he can be a dog. He's wicked chill, he loves to lay on the couch and watch TV," Elwell said. "Most of the time he just wants to work, but if you have a ball, he'll stay with you all day long."

As the duo awaits calls, Elwell said it's a matter of keeping Kaiser's nose sharp and ready for action.

"I hope he could help somebody someday. That's the ultimate goal. In the meantime it's just about being ready," he said.

Elwell, who is seldom seen without Kaiser at his side, admitted that while it will be difficult to send his best friend into hazardous situations such as collapsed buildings, he recognizes the importance of letting the dog do what he was trained to do.

"My kids think I'm crazy. Wherever I'm at, there's a good possibility Kaiser's with me," said Elwell. "I love my dog. He's my partner and my friend, but he's also got a job to do."  

Jack Shea may be contacted at 978-961-3154 or jshea@newburyportnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.