What Does “We Have Not Forgotten” Mean To You?


In 1995, at the age of 61, Wilma Melville and her dog Murphy were deployed with California Task Force 2 to search for survivors of the Oklahoma City Bombing. At that time there were only about 15 FEMA Advanced Certified Canine Disaster Search Teams in the country, and all the handlers were civilians like Wilma. It took up to three years to train the dogs, at great personal expense to the handlers, and not many of the teams reached advanced certification. Wilma knew that if something didn’t change, the country would never have enough highly skilled Canine Search Teams to adequately respond to disasters.

“I considered different ways to address the problem, and realized that professional firefighters had the best chance of becoming successful canine handlers. They have the discipline and training regimen needed for ten years of intensive training with their dog, a schedule which accommodates this, and the knowledge and skills needed to save lives.”

Soon after her life-changing experience in Oklahoma City, Wilma founded the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF), an organization that would partner shelter dogs with firefighters and give them the training and resources they needed for this extremely challenging, demanding line of work.

SDF’s founding Search Dogs were all rescues recruited by Wilma: Ana, from a friend in Santa Rosa, CA; Dusty from Golden Retriever Rescue of Salinas, CA; and Harley from the Ojai Humane Society. She brought these enthusiastic, uncontrollable animals, bursting with energy, to renowned dog trainer Pluis Davern, and together they created a new training methodology.

While the dogs were in training, Mike Antonucci, then Deputy Chief of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, recommended three firefighters as handlers for Wilma’s pilot program. That’s how Randy Gross (Sacramento Metro Fire), Rick Lee (Sacramento City Fire), and Rob Cima (El Dorado Fire) became SDF’s first handlers.

“I agreed to join, and the next thing I knew I was standing out back of Station 21, bucket in hand, pretending it was my Search Dog, learning to walk it and talk to it, as Wilma taught us,” remembers Randy. Rick sums up the feelings of the group at that time: “We had absolutely no idea what we were getting into—the level of responsibility, the time commitment, or the impact this program would have on our lives. As the first handlers in SDF’s program, we were driven to prove ourselves to the search team community. We drove the training curriculum off the charts!”

After an extraordinary history as SDF handlers, with life-altering experiences responding to September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, and numerous local deployments, our three founding teams have passed their tremendous knowledge and experiences to succeeding generations of Search Teams.

This year we are honoring SDF’s three founding Canine Disaster Search Teams who blazed the trail for 150 SDF teams who followed. Please join us in celebrating these extraordinary handlers and their canine partners by helping us recruit three Search Teams for the Canine Class of 2015. Give America the disaster response resources it needs – Be Part of the Search!

Our goal is $30,000 by September 30th for the Canine Class of 2015.


“We will be forever grateful to the Search Dog Foundation for the experiences, relationships and life-long friendships this experience has given us. The new handlers will need to have a passion for the SDF program, not just for their dogs. They’ll need to understand all the responsibilities involved…someday they may be making life or death decisions. With their training from SDF, they’ll be up to the challenge.”
Rick Lee


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