2021 a busy year for K9 unit in Sarawak

The Bomba K9 dogs with their handlers during operations.

First of a three-part series

The Fire and Rescue Department (Bomba) Malaysia established its canine (K9) unit in 2002 as part of the efforts to increase its capabilities in search and rescue (SAR) as well as to assist its fire forensic team.

Throughout the years, the K9 unit has contributed to various successes in SAR operations. Thus, it comes as no surprise that it was expanded to Sarawak and Sabah in 2018 and each state was given six K9 dogs for three different disciplines, namely, fire investigation (FI), SAR cadaver and SAR wilderness.

John Sagun Francis

According to State Bomba Head of Operation and Fire Station Management John Sagun Francis, Sarawak’s K9 unit, which is stationed in Serian, consists of a chief and six handlers.

“There are four disciplines in the K9 unit, but so far, Sarawak does not have the Urban SAR for operations involving disasters such as landslide and collapsed building structure.

“The FI discipline assists the fire investigation team to detect accelerant in incendiary fire or fire source that is difficult to identify while the SAR cadaver discipline assists in finding victims on land and water.

“As for SAR wilderness, the discipline assists in searching and rescuing missing persons in the forests, caves and upland areas,” he explained.

Despite being small in numbers compared to the 24 K9 dogs across four disciplines in Peninsular Malaysia, John stated that Wilf, Daisy, Bella, Bailey, Sue and Cliff are taking good care of Sarawak as they were diligent in carrying out their duties.

He disclosed that the FI discipline, in particular, had been very busy as it had assisted in approximately 20 fire cases this year. In saying this, he pointed out that the FI discipline is often very accurate.

“There has been an increase in demand and request for the FI discipline to assist in fire investigations since the end of last year. When there are fire cases, the FI discipline will be deployed, and it is assigned to identify the accelerant source.

“Once the K9 dog on duty has identified the location of the accelerant source, samples will be taken which will be verified at our laboratory. The FI discipline is often deployed to fire cases that happened in Kuching, Samarahan, Sri Aman, Serian and Sibu among others,” he said.

Dominic Girai

He added that the SAR cadaver and wilderness disciplines had been deployed for 12 operations which required their assistance.
Meanwhile, Dominic Girai, who is the head of the K9 Unit in Sarawak, explained that the K9 dogs were carefully selected based on their capabilities and to ensure compatibility.

He said the K9 dogs were closely monitored and evaluated during the first two months of acclimation and bonding course of training after selection.

“During the first stage of selection for the dogs, the K9 trainers from the United Kingdom will be with us for three months to see whether the handlers are compatible with their respective dogs and to evaluate the dogs’ capabilities.

“The assignment of the dogs with the handlers is done randomly. If the trainers find there is no compatibility, they will switch the dogs with other handlers and so on,” he explained.

Dominic said there are differences between male and female dogs in terms of behaviour as well as the approach in carrying out their duties. These factors contribute to the uniqueness and rewarding part of working in the unit.

“Based on my own experience, I found that the females are more responsible in comparison with the often-playful males.

“Nonetheless, our handlers are very detailed in conducting the daily inspections of their partners. They are required to evaluate 12 criteria in the mental and physical examination form.

“So far, the dogs with our unit are all in good health and thankfully, there has never been any problems. However, if the handlers found that their partners are unwell or appear not to be their usual selves, we would take them to the nearest veterinarian,” he said.

He also said that extra precautions are taken when the dogs are deployed to assist in operations to avoid injuries.

The Bomba K9 dogs with their handlers during operations.

On the K9 dogs in Sarawak’s daily routine, Dominic said they would undergo training from Monday to Thursday while Friday and the weekend are dedicated to maintenance work for the dogs’ kennels as well as transportation.

“The training will usually take about an hour, but it also depends on weather conditions. The handlers have complete control on this as we must be wary of exposing the dogs to extreme conditions like heat for too long,” he added.

Dominic pointed out that the maintenance work, which includes cleaning of the dogs’ kennels and grooming, would be done by their respective handlers. This is part and parcel of the bonding process that the handlers must continuously carry out.

“The bonding between the handlers and their partner is a continuous and crucial process.

“The handlers have to conduct training and go on operations with their partners in addition to doing their daily bonding activities,” he said.

Based on his personal experience, Dominic said the bonding process between the handlers and their dogs differed from one another. As such, he mentioned that there is no specific guideline or an A-to-Z schematic in creating and nurturing this pertinent bond as well as trust.