Cowee Fire Department boasts state recognized K9 Search and Rescue Team

Pictured, from left with their K-9s are handlers Morgan McClure, Assistant Chief Benji Johnson, Assistant Chief Larry Pickens and Chris Southard

Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer

Pictured are Dr. Lisa Briggs and Edwin Grant. Not pictured are handlers Lieutenant Kyle Southard and Firefighter Amber Southard.

The Cowee Fire and Rescue Department has been working for the last couple of months to strengthen their department’s impact with the addition of search and rescue K-9s. After a search earlier this year in the dense woods of Macon County, leaders within the department took the initiative to prioritize the need. 

“Earlier this year our department assisted with a search for a missing juvenile,” said Cowee Fire and Rescue Chief Dustin Pendergrass. “We were providing assistance with our Dive Team and we also sent members to assist on foot.  At that time the closest K-9 Rescue Team trained in “air scent” was located approximately three hours away in South Carolina. Once the team arrived, the juvenile was located within 45 minutes.  After this call we began discussing the need for a K-9 team.  Not only for Macon County, but for all of Western North Carolina.  One thing led to another and within a couple months we were in contact with Mr. EJ Abel of PAWS Working Dog Support Network Inc., located in Blairsville, Ga.  Mr. Abel immediately began searching for us a K-9.”

Within a few months, Cowee Fire and Rescue’s K-9 team reached six members, with two undergoing training now. 

“We have partnered with Edwin Grant from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Dr. Lisa Briggs from Western Carolina University,” said Pendergrass. “They have both joined our department along with their K-9s.  This brings our current trained K-9 total to six, with two more about to begin Air Scent Training.”

Members of the department’s K-9 team include: 

• K-9 Ava, Handler Assistant Chief Larry Pickens.  Trained in Air Scent

• K-9 Tracker, Handler Assistant Chief Benji Johnson.  Trained in Air Scent

• K-9 Daisy, Handler Edwin Grant.  Trained Cadaver, Land and Water

• K-9 Wes, K-9 Onna, and K-9 Laila, Handler Dr. Lisa Briggs.  All trained Cadaver.  Laila currently has 29 victim recoveries.

• K-9 Riley, Handlers Firefighter Morgan McClure and Fire Captain Killian Carpenter. Being trained in Air Scent.

• K-9 Colt, Handlers Firefighters Chris and Cierra Southard.  Will train for Air Scent search.

• K-9 Indy, Handlers Lieutenant Kyle Southard and Firefighter Amber Southard.  Will train for Air Scent search.

“Our vision is to develop and maintain a top notch and professional K-9 Search & Rescue Team that will be available anywhere in North Carolina along with any surrounding states,” said Pendergrass. “These K-9’s will be able to partner with our Swiftwater Rescue Team and Dive Team.”

Funding for the program has been possible through donations as well as individual members taking on the financial responsibility themselves. K-9 Ava and K-9 Tracker were fully trained and certified by Abel and his staff and were donated to Cowee Fire & Rescue. Grant and Dr. Briggs own their dogs and joined Cowee Department at no cost to the department. K-9 Colt and K-9 Indy are individually owned by department members who agreed to participate in the training in order to become a part of the K-9 team.  This is also at no charge to the department.

“An anonymous donation was made to Cowee Fire & Rescue to be used to purchase dog food and assist with any vet expenses,” said Pendergrass. “Our long term goal is to utilize a portion of our annual donations to fund the K-9s’ food and vet expenses. To date, all training and certifications have been provided free of charge.”

Over the last month Cowee Fire and Rescue has completed the necessary paperwork and been approved by the State to be recognized as a State Response Team, specializing in K-9 Search & Rescue, Swiftwater Rescue, and Rescue Dive. 

“Each year the county sees several searches for missing people, and by all means the firefighters and law enforcement in our county do an outstanding job,” said Pendergrass. “Where I feel that our K-9s will be most beneficial is they are specifically trained on air scent.  Meaning they do not rely on ground tracking.  For example, if rescuers have been in an area searching and we bring our K-9s in, the foot traffic from the rescuers should not hinder the K-9s’ ability to get a scent on the missing person(s).  Depending on the weather and wind (speed and direction) the K-9s can be up to a mile and a half away from the victim and still get their scent.  They are trained to locate the victim(s) then return to a handler in order to lead them back to the victim(s).  We simply want to being an asset, an additional resource to Macon County and our neighbors.  Having such a large number of K-9s means that even if our team is deployed to another county, we will keep some behind to be available in our county. If we can turn an all-night search into a couple hours or less, then it makes this entire effort worthwhile.”

Pendergrass noted that the addition of Grand and Dr. Briggs to the department has also made equipment available that otherwise would have been costly. 

“We now have two boats with SONAR capabilities,” said Pendergrass. “This will aid our dive team in recovery missions.”

Pendergrass said the department also now has access to three drones to utilize for search and rescue as county fire departments take the lead on such incidents. 

The department has equipment to monitor search areas while canvassing an area much larger than possible otherwise. 

“We have purchased tracking hardware for our members and for our K-9s,” said Pendergrass. “This includes mapping software called CalTopo. When out on searches we can monitor the entire search area from the command post and make sure that the entire search area has been covered.  Each member on our department with a smartphone has the option to add this software by using the CalTopo app.  We can also track their search pattern by using the GPS in their phone.  This software also allows us to send a message to the missing individuals cell phone (if they have cell service), once they open the message and accept, this person’s location will be identified on our map with GPS coordinates.” 

The department recognized a need not just in Macon County, but across Western North Carolina, and the pieces quickly began to fall in place for implementation and execution. 

“This entire adventure has happened very fast and the credit must go to the group of very dedicated men and women of Cowee Fire & Rescue, Mr. Grant and Dr. Briggs for joining our department and bringing their years of service and expertise, and Mr. Abel for generously training and donating Ava and Tracker,” said Pendergrass. “Mr. Abel and his staff are also training our other K-9s for free.  Even though we only have a select few becoming handlers at this time, our entire department has trained weekly becoming more knowledgeable in all aspects of search and rescue.  I am truly honored to be the chief of Cowee Fire & Rescue, but none of this would be possible without our dedicated group setting high standards and working tirelessly for the betterment of our department.”