Layton Fire K-9, handler traveled to Houston to bail out flooded residents

Tuesday , September 12, 2017 - 5:15 AM

NADIA PFLAUM/Standard-Examiner

Layton Fire Department Engineer and EMT Roxanne Bauman prepares her K-9 partner, Cole, to show off his specialized search training at the Layton City Training Tower on September 9, 2017.

NADIA PFLAUM, Standard-Examiner staff

LAYTON — It was after midnight on Thursday, Aug. 24, when Roxanne Bauman got the call. Within hours, the Layton City paramedic and firefighter and her K-9 search and rescue dog Cole were on the road, racing Hurricane Harvey to Houston, Texas.

Bauman and 45 other members of Utah Task Force 1 had been called in by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist flooded-out residents evacuating from the Gulf hurricane’s record-high storm surge. It marked the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, that the agency called in all 28 of its urban search and rescue teams to respond to a disaster.

“When we came rolling in,” Bauman says, “We had five vans, two pickup trucks with boats, two box trucks and two semis.” 

RELATED: Layton Fire thrilled with Cole the disaster dog

Bauman says she and her team slept in the bleachers of San Antonio’s AT&T Stadium the night before their arrival in Houston. When they got to the drenched city, their first mission was to respond to the emergency calls for evacuation that had gone unanswered.

“The streets looked like any neighborhood, except all you could see were rooftops,” Bauman said. “People were wading out with their families, holding their pets and whatever belongings they could grab.”

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For their part, Bauman and Cole helped evacuees off boats and into initial collection points where water, food, medical supplies and other necessities were waiting. She can’t remember the exact number of people they personally assisted, but she knows it was more than 300.

She remembers one in particular. It was nighttime, on a bridge, and the team took in a mother holding a baby, a toddler tagging along by her other hand. Bauman took the baby from the mother so that she could lift the older child from the waters. 

“She expressed that it was the first time all day that she hadn’t been holding that poor baby in her arms,” Bauman says. “Her arms were so tired.”

Cole didn’t have the opportunity to perform the “search” part of the search and rescue mission, but he assisted in other ways. “He kept our spirits up,” Bauman says. “Snuggling. Being a lap dog.” 

Cole was a “pound puppy,” rescued from a shelter at 9 months old by a California organization, National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, which trains canines for service roles. Bauman, who has worked for Layton Fire for 15 years, became his handler in March 2013.

Cole, now 5, is trained for live rescues, as opposed to cadaver-finding dogs. He can smell through walls and understands hand signals. 

“He’s still a lab. He puts ADD to shame,” Bauman says. “He pretends I’m in control some of the time.” 

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When not called up by FEMA, Bauman and Cole keep busy in Layton with search and rescue missions. 

“Part of our local response for police and fire agencies is that Roxanne and Cole can be requested to the scene. Cole has been requested to search for individuals that was lost or needed to be located by police. It is a wonderful resource to have in the city and county,” says Doug Bitton, Layton Fire Department’s public information officer.

When Cole is around, the mood at the station lightens, Bitton says. Cole’s presence “ease[s] the stress on the crews after a call.”

In Houston, Bauman was concerned that an alligator hiding amid debris would make a snack of Cole, and she scanned for copperheads and cottonmouth snakes, but they encountered none. She saw fire ants, but she and Cole managed to avoid their stings. When returning at night to the “cache,” wherever the FEMA semi trucks and equipment were staged for the day, Bauman and Cole had to go through a “decon corridor,” to wash off waste and contamination from the flood water.

Bauman and Cole returned to Utah on Wednesday, and while she says she’d gladly aid in hurricane relief again, Bauman isn’t overjoyed at the thought of turning right back around for Florida as Hurricane Irma bears down. There is a rotation schedule for FEMA’s urban search and rescue squads, and they’re on it. 

If called, Bauman and Cole will answer.