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August 1, 2006 > Her brilliant career

Her brilliant career

by Janet Grant

She is short, dark, and friendly, has an outgoing personality and a knack for finding people under rubble. Such unique qualities made Tammy, a black Labrador retriever, a perfect match for Fremont Firefighter and Canine Search Specialist, Sergio Morariu. Her brilliant career was cut short by injury, so she now lives a life of leisure as the Morariu family pet.

Tammy was part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) urban search and rescue system composed of 28 teams located throughout the country. Since 1989, these teams have been specially trained and equipped to find people trapped in a structural collapse. As part of this effort, Tammy was given to the department by the nonprofit National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF).

Until recently, Fremont maintained two canine search teams certified by FEMA as advanced teams. This certification signifies that the team is capable of going anywhere in the nation and performing at the highest level. Along with Tammy, there is Zack, a 10-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever owned and handled by Firefighter and Canine Specialist Team Group Leader, Jeff Place. The highly trained SDF dogs know how to safely enter collapsed structures to systematically search for live people. These very special dogs work hard to save lives and are constantly training to keep up their skills.

Unlike the grim work of tracking cadavers, Tammy's specialty is live human scent and for her it is literally a game of hide-and-seek. If her marvelously sensitive nose catches a scent, she'll mark the spot with a continuous, focused bark until her handler comes to help locate the victim. Morariu explained that at the time of the Oklahoma City bombings, there were only 16 search and rescue dogs in the country. Since he planned to get a dog anyway, he thought it would be great to get involved. Then he learned that if he got one through the SDF he could get certified within a year.

The dogs - mostly golden and Labrador retrievers, or border collies - come from all over the country. Surprisingly, many come from animal rescue shelters. Though never neglected or abused, Tammy did have a little trouble finding her niche. Originally, she was purchased by a church congregation as a gift to the minister's family. However, her boundless energy proved to be more than the family could handle. After the dog climbed a tree and escaped over a fence, they knew they couldn't keep her. But because of her ability to climb, the family contacted the SDF thinking she might make a good search dog. Tammy passed their basic testing and entered the program.

Once recruited, Tammy went through several weeks of obedience training with the SDF in Southern California. She then traveled to a professional kennel in Gilroy for six months of daily training in advanced obedience and disaster search skills.

While Tammy went through her course, Morariu received his own intensive training. He had to learn leash commands, hand signals, proper approach, and timing.

After his training was over, Morariu and Tammy were partnered for more training as a team, though not necessarily as a permanent placement. Throughout the joint training, humans and dogs are evaluated for personality and aptitude matches. On the last day of the course you find out if the dog you train with is a good match. Morariu says he was matched with the biggest knucklehead in the group!

Tammy was so full of energy that when he first got her, Morariu couldn't bend over to pet her because she would constantly bounce up in his face. For their first two weeks together he had a bloody lip everyday. But the two formed a tight bond and once Morariu brought her to the Fremont station, she quickly gained her FEMA certification. Then the duo left for their first rescue, a fiery baptism ... the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster.

Deployed with Oakland Task Force 4, Tammy and Morariu searched in diligent frustration. "Unfortunately we were called in too late to find anyone alive," Morariu said. Their first deployment was a long and dangerous one of combing through hellish debris of sharp, twisted pieces of steal, smoldering slabs of concrete and choking clouds of dust and smoke. The two weathered the frustrations and emotional toll, but Morariu says it was 15 days he'll never forget.

Tammy went on to distinguish herself in numerous catastrophes, including hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It was after the latter that Morariu traveled to Dallas for a training exercise. While working there, Tammy sustained an injury to a toenail that forced them to head home early. The torn toenail turned out to be a fracture, and Tammy eventually lost a bone in that paw which prohibits her from placing her full weight on it. With her inability to safely continue the exacting work, Morariu made the decision to retire her well in advance of the typical age of 8 to10 years.

According to FEMA there is a shortage of rescue dogs in California and the rest of the country. It estimates that the nation needs to have at least 350 dogs trained and living with their firefighter handlers to be ready for natural and man-made disasters. Only 67 FEMA Advanced-Certified canine search teams exist in the U.S. today and over half of them are in California. When Zack retires, Fremont will be without a search and rescue team, unless another one steps forward.

He doesn't have Tammy by his side at work anymore, but Morariu still sees her nearly every day since she's now a beloved family member. Now retired from search and rescue, Morariu remains thankful for the many challenges, rewards and opportunities he and his partner shared. He says he'll never forget the devastation in New York and his and Tammy's contributions. Nor will he ever forget the gift of such a wonderful partner and companion.

For more information about search and rescue dogs, visit

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