Macon County secures state-recognized K9 search and rescue team at Cowee Fire Department


The Cowee Fire and Rescue Service has been working over the past two months to bolster the impact of its service with the addition of Search and Rescue K9s. After searching the dense woods of Macon County earlier this year, department leaders took the initiative to prioritize the need.

“Earlier this year, our service was involved in the search for a missing minor,” said Cowee Fire and Rescue Chief Dustin Pendergrass. “We were providing assistance with our dive team and we also sent members to help out on foot. At that time, the “scent of the air” K-9 rescue team was about a three-hour drive away in South Carolina. Once the team arrived, the juvenile was located in less than 45 minutes. After that call, we started discussing the need for a K-9 team. Not just for Macon County, but for all of western North Carolina. Gradually, a few months later, we got in touch with Mr. EJ Abel of PAWS Working Dog Support Network Inc., located in Blairsville, GA. Mr. Abel immediately started looking for a K-9 for us.

Within months, Cowee Fire and Rescue’s K9 team has grown to six members, two of whom are currently in training.

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

The department’s K9s include:

K-9 Ava, Deputy Head of Manager Larry Pickens. Trained to smell the air

K-9 Tracker, Deputy Chief Benji Johnson. Trained to smell the air

K-9 Daisy, manager Edwin Grant. Formed corpse, earth and water

K-9 Wes, K-9 Onna and K-9 Laila, manager Dr. Lisa Briggs. Corpse all formed. Laila currently has 29 recovered victims.

K-9 Rylee, Material Handlers Firefighter Morgan McClure and Fire Captain Killian Carpenter. To be trained in the scent of air.

K-9 Colt, Firefighter Handlers Chris and Cierra Southard. Will train in search of Air Scent.

Not pictured: K-9 Indy, Lt. Kyle Southard and Firefighter Amber Southard. Will train in search of Air Scent.

“Our vision is to develop and maintain a first-rate and professional K-9 search and rescue team that will be available throughout North Carolina as well as all surrounding states,” said Pendergrass. “These K-9s will be able to partner with our Swiftwater Rescue and Dive Team.”

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

“An anonymous donation was made to Cowee Fire / Rescue to be used to purchase dog food and help cover veterinary expenses,” Pendergrass said. “Our long-term goal is to use a portion of our annual donations to fund the food and veterinary expenses of the K-9. To date, all training and certifications have been provided free of charge.

Over the past month, Cowee Fire and Rescue has completed the necessary paperwork and been state approved for recognition as a state response team, specializing in K-9 search and rescue, whitewater rescue and rescue diving.

“Each year the county sees multiple searches for missing persons and by all means our county fire and law enforcement do a remarkable job,” Pendergrass said. “Where I think our K-9s will be most beneficial is that they are specifically trained to smell the air. This means they don’t rely on ground tracking. For example, if rescuers have searched the area and we bring our K-9s, the foot traffic of rescuers should not hamper the K-9’s ability to locate the missing person (s). Depending on the weather and the wind (speed and direction), the K-9s can be up to a mile and a half from the victim and still smell their scent. They are trained to locate the victim (s) and then return to the master in order to escort them to the victim (s). We just want to be an asset, an additional resource for 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 a few to be available in our county. If we can turn a search through the night in a few hours or less, then all of that effort is worth it. “

Pendergrass noted that the addition of Grand and Dr. Briggs to the department also made equipment available that would otherwise have been expensive. “We now have two boats with SONAR capabilities,” Pendergrass said. “It will help our dive team on recovery missions.”

Pendergrass said the department also has access to three drones to use for search and rescue as the county fire departments take the lead in these incidents.

The department has equipment to monitor search areas while prospecting for a much larger area than possible otherwise. “We bought some tracking gear for our members and for our K-9s,” Pendergrass said. “This includes mapping software called CalTopo. When searching, we can monitor the entire search area from the command post and make sure that the entire search area has been covered. Each member of our service with a smartphone has the possibility to add this software using the CalTopo app. We can also track their search pattern using their phone’s GPS. This software also allows us to send a message to the missing person’s cell phone (if they have cell service), once they open the message and accept that person’s location will be identified on our map with GPS coordinates.

The department recognized a need not only in Macon County, but across western North Carolina, and the elements quickly began to fall into place for implementation and execution.

“This whole adventure went very quickly and credit goes to the very dedicated group of 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. “Sir. Abel and his team also train our other K-9s for free. Although we only have a few of the emerging managers at the moment, our entire department. trained weekly to learn more about all aspects of search and rescue. I am truly honored to be the Head of Cowee Fire / Rescue, but none of this would be possible without our dedicated group who set high standards and work tirelessly to improve our service.

Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland noted that the K9s in Cowee are a great addition to the community.

“It will be an incredible asset to our community and a welcome addition to services in our area,” said Sheriff Holland. “We have already been in communication with the CFR regarding the possibility of future training with our K9 MCSOs due to the realization that a ‘search and rescue’ mission could eventually turn into a ‘search for suspects ”, as we have experienced on more than one occasion. I congratulate Chef Pendergrass and those who serve alongside him on this proactive endeavor. We intend to fully support them and look forward to seeing their progress.