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Duo Earn National Urban Rescue Ranking--video extra--photo slideshow

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Local trainer and her canine certify for urban rescue unit

By Carol A. Clark

In the entire nation just 253 canines are certified capable of handling deployments to massive urban disasters anywhere in the world.

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Black Labrador Coalby Maez of Los Alamos just became the latest.

Debbi Maez, a longtime wilderness search and rescue expert, is the other half of the newly certified urban rescue team. Maez, 44, works in the Security Services Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory by day and has spent her evenings and weekends during the last two-and-a-half-years training Coalby for last month’s grueling certification testing.

Jack Killeen, Security Services Division Leader at LANL, wanted the community to know of Maez’ and Coalby’s accomplishment.

“I used to run the Air Force military working dog programs, so I understand the more than two years of hard work Debbi and Coalby put in,” Killeen said. “Human rescue certification is as hard as it gets. Debbi and Coalby should be truly proud.”

Maez credits her best friend, wilderness search and rescue expert Terry Dubois, for helping her and Coalby become certified.

“I could not have done this without her,” Maez said.

Among her many contributions to the effort, DuBois served as rescue victim during countless training exercises, crawling in dirt and nooks and crannies to hide so Coalby could practice finding her.

Maez and Coalby are members of New Mexico Task Force 1 in Albuquerque, and are now completely deployable to urban disasters the magnitude of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and Hurricane Katrina. They were number five on the Japan earthquake/tsunami rotation list. As with all urban rescuers, Maez and Coalby will enter disasters early because their expertise is in live searches.

Maez and DuBois began the many steps necessary to get Coalby to where he is today when he was less than 8-weeks-old. They began by placing him on boulders and other surfaces to help him become accustomed to how various textures felt beneath his paws.

“It’s amazing with all the nails and other sharp objects found in collapsed buildings that these dogs rarely get hurt,” Maez said.

Coalby is one of 138 Labradors in the urban rescue unit. Labs are ideal because they love to please their owner, she said. Border Collies are the second largest population in the unit.

On March 22, Maez traveled with Coalby to College Station, Texas, to take the final FEMA disaster dog examination. The exam was the culmination of two-and-a-half years of training, including obedience, directionals, agility and rubble pile search work.

Having passed a Foundation Skills Assessment examination last year in San Francisco, as well as other training in Arizona, Colorado and Utah, the duo qualified to take the final examination.

The test included finding one to four subjects buried under two concrete rubble piles in 90-degree temperatures with humidity hovering at 60 percent.

They had just 20 minutes per rubble pile for Coalby to locate and bark at the source of each human scent.  

“The final testing was the most intense, stressful week I can remember in recent history,” Maez said. “Coalby sensed my nervousness and didn’t want to leave my side. He found all three people hiding in the first rubble pile in 12 minutes. My nervousness increased as we got closer to finishing the test so Colby stood by me until 15 minutes had passed, then ran onto the second rubble pile and found one of two subjects within two minutes before time ran out. Fortunately, we were allowed to miss one subject.”  

Maez and Dubois have 45 years of dog training expertise between them.

“Coalby’s certification is truly remarkable for a dog this young,” DuBois said.

“This was an amazing training feat and a fine performance in front of many judges. I certainly salute their training expertise and work ethic.”  

DuBois, an expert trainer, drove with Maez to Idaho and selected Coalby out of a group of 11 puppies.

“I picked him and he’s never disappointed me,” DuBois said. “He’s always happy and wants to work and play. I watched him for a while and I think it was just intuition but he stood out to me, he wasn’t shy, he wasn’t so focused on food as his litter mates were and he showed interest in his surroundings.”

Maez must now keep Coalby trained and in tip-top shape while awaiting the inevitable call.

Maez resides in a home with a large backyard adjacent to open space.

She has an agility course set up in the yard where she, Coalby and Coalby’s older sister, Kayla workout.

Kayla, 9, had sufficient drive to train for urban search and rescue but Maez said, being older, it would have been hard on her joints.

“This was a big effort by a lot of people who realize what we do and why we do it and were happy to provide areas for us to train to enable us to help people and even save lives,” Maez said.

“Coalby works his heart out training for the opportunity to save lives, and he does it all for his daily reward – an old, worn out Frisbee.”

Maez explained that for Coalby, it doesn’t get much better than that.

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