THE COAL CITY Fire Protection District has welcomed a four-legged member to its team of first responders. Rikki, a German shepherd, was adopted by the fire district last month and is being trained to serve as a search and rescue canine.
Ann Gill Editor
Next to the jar of chocolate candies on the fire chief's desk is a container of canine treats, a little something extra for when the department's newest member stops by the office.
Last month, the Coal City Fire Protection District welcomed its first four-legged member to the team of first responders. Rikki, a female German Shepherd, has been added to the roster as the department's first search and rescue canine.
"As incidents (drownings and missing persons) were going on this summer we realized this would be a useful tool," said Lt. Nick Doerfler, the department's public information officer and canine handler.
Working with fire chief James Sheldon, Doerfler put together a canine program and proposal to present to the district's fire trustees, who agreed to finance the program.
Rikki is currently in training. Her instruction is being conducted through Pawsdog Illinois, a canine training firm owned and operated by Diamond resident and former district paramedic Leslie Spreitzer.
"We contacted Leslie and she agreed to come on board with us," Doerfler said.
Since joining the department in early September, Rikki and Doerfler have been meeting with Spreitzer on a regular basis.
"The training is going very well and Rikki should have her land tracking certificate by mid-October," Doerfler said.
The canine will be trained in land and water search and rescue. Rikki's skill set will also include air scenting, a search method that uses airborne scents to locate a missing person, and human remains detection.
In just one month of training, Rikki has been able to successfully land track two individuals, one who was two miles away and the other who was hiding in heavy brush.
Her training is expected to be complete by mid-spring 2015.
"She is definately going to be an asset to the Coal City Fire Protection District and agencies all around," Doerfler said.
A few of the situations she'll be trained to help first responders in is locating missing persons such as individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and autistic children who tend to wander. Rikki will also be able to assist in water rescue and the recovery of drowning victims. She will not do any type of arson investigation.
Outside of her formal training, Rikki is spending a lot of time at the fire station getting to know the staff, the equipment, the sounds and the community. She's been making the rounds meeting community leaders, local law enforcement, and business owners. As part of Fire Prevention Month activities, Doerfler is planning to introduce her to the schools.
Last weekend she attended the Grundy County Corn Festival, and this Saturday she will be meeting community members at Octoberfest.
Those who meet Rikki will likely notice that her commands are given in German, it's a way to control the number of commands she will hear if called to a scene where their are multiple working canines.
Since she is a working member of the department, fire and emergency medical service personnel are not allowed to play with or pet the canine.
"I know its a little frustrating for some of them because they just want to pet her," Doerfler said.
The more time Rikki spends at the station, the more she is getting use to the fire house routine and the sounds.
"When she hears the tone go off she looks at me and then runs to the office and gets in her crate because she knows we are headed out," Doerfler sad.
Rikki is owned by the fire protection district, but is housed and cared for by Doerfler and his family.
The canine is about seven months old and was obtained through the German Shepherd Rescue Alliance of Wisconsin.
Doerfler said his new partner was a stray that had been picked up and placed in a shelter. The canine was just three days away from euthanization when the district adopted her.
The district's inital investment in the canine program was less than $3,000, which paid for her adoption fee, medical care, insurance, food and equipment that includes a vest and boots.
Doerfler said he's been approached by a few community members interested in making a donation to support the program. Sheldon said the fire district will accept monetary donations on her behalf. Donations can be made to the Coal City Fire Protection District.