Search, Rescue, Repeat
When a person goes missing in New Hampshire or Vermont, New England K9 Search and Rescue attempt to save the day
New England K9 — a Northeast nonprofit Search and Rescue (SAR) organization, comprised entirely of volunteers — have been responsible for assisting in missing person searches for the last 37 years.
“We eat, sleep and breathe SAR work.” This is how Jennifer Vaughan, a senior canine handler and executive board member of New England K9, describes the daily life of a New England K9 SAR volunteer.
Vaughan has been a SAR canine handler for 10 years. She is a retired English teacher from Burlington, Vermont, and was introduced to SAR work (more or less) through her golden retriever, Olive. Olive, who is now 11 years old, began excelling at therapy work at about a year old — but Vaughan, who drew inspiration from watching the 9/11 dog and handler responders, wasn’t finding enough fulfillment in therapy work. “It just fits my personality so much,” Vaughan says of SAR work. “I love adversity, I love being in the woods with my dogs and I love pushing myself. You have to be passionate, because it’s not glamorous.”
Passion is a thread that runs through every aspect of what New England K9 does — not just within the canine and human search teams. The nonprofit, volunteer-based organization works with both dogs (the “K9” component) and a drone operator. Enter Jocelyn “Josh” Stohl.
Stohl is a 65-year-old New England K9 SAR volunteer and the organization’s only drone pilot. Running the SAR program in Vermont, Stohl was first introduced to search and rescue through her time as a Vermont State Trooper. When Stohl retired from the force, she joined New England K9. After first volunteering on the team as a canine handler, she developed an interest in drones. Stohl attended a presentation in 2018 on the impact that drones can have on search and rescue efforts, and decided to look into the viability of a drone program for the state of New Hampshire. Then, in February of 2019, she decided to enroll in the University of New Hampshire’s Drone Academy to learn more about the legal requirements for flying a drone and how to effectively operate one. In May of 2020, Stohl received her drone license and started responding to searches sans canine.
Stohl and her drone, which was recently upgraded using donated funds to the program, primarily support SAR efforts in three ways: obtaining high-up, big-picture overviews of a search area so that on-foot volunteers can better get their bearings; watching from above for incoming hazards to warn volunteers on the ground or in the water; and actively searching for missing persons.
While Stohl can’t talk specifically about individual searches she’s performed, she recalls enough missing person drone recoveries to convince anyone of the gravity and weight of her work. The list goes on and on: a victim found in a river, a missing child located at night with infrared drone technology, etc. Despite this, Stohl doesn’t overmphasize the drone’s importance. “A lot of people see drones as a ‘gamechanger’ — but they’re just another resource, working alongside all of the other resources we have,” she says. “And everyone is working toward the same goal. If someone is found via a dog team, or a local ground team, then that’s great. That’s the best case scenario.”
Vaughan shares this perspective. She says that the entire New England K9 team understands that those of their coterie who don’t find something in a given search area are just as important as those who do. “To clear an area — to know that whoever you’re searching for is not in that place — means that you’ve done your job and have eliminated a variable,” Vaughan says. “The team who does not find the person is as successful as the team who does find the person.”
This spirit of teamwork feels deeply rooted in the culture of New England K9. Because of the nature of the work that SAR handlers do, Vaughan says that everyone on the team has a relatively similar personality: driven, enthusiastic about the outdoors, dog-loving, problem-solving, hardworking and community-motivated. “You have to be passionate because it’s not glamorous,” Vaughan admits. She relayed numerous instances of the hardscrabble work involved; Vaughan recalls getting woken up in the middle of the night, standing in cold, dark swamps, wading through drainages, bushwacking through thick forests, trudging through deep snow and, of course, dealing with emotionally challenging searches and finds.
While Vaughan and Stohl both assert that, to do this work, one must possess strong coping skills and a certain toughness, they also make sure to emotionally support the missing person. Stohl’s drone has an intercom feature that allows her to pre-record a message to play from the air while her drone is searching. The message assures the missing person that help is nearby and coming. She says its intention is to comfort and calm the person, providing the hope needed to make it through challenging conditions. Vaughan is also constantly trying to think about the human — the person within the missing person scenario — while she searches. She remembers saying quiet prayers for a victim, or carrying messages of hope in her pocket, while in the field. Crucial to getting through challenging searches is the culture of community within New England K9. “We really love being together,” Vaughan says. “We train hard to be called out for a search. We have each other’s backs. Rain, snow, middle of the night…we really are so passionate about this.”
There’s also the community surrounding New England K9 volunteers that makes their mission possible. Spouses and families of volunteers have to support all-hours calls for searches; friends have to understand last-minute cancelled plans; and employers have to accept call-outs from work. In fact, in order to join New England K9, a signed letter is required stating that the employer will support and honor the handler leaving work at any time for a call. Because of this, and because all New England K9 SAR volunteers are just that — volunteers — many members are retired or have exceptionally flexible “day jobs.”
The ideal handler also has to enjoy working with and training their dog. “If we are not actively on a search, we are training,” says Doreen Michalak, a canine handler. “If we are not training, we are thinking about training.” Stella Richards, another handler, says that “the starting point for this work is personal accountability — making sure you’re physically fit, properly equipped and self-sufficient, so that you are not a burden to the overall mission.”
SAR drone operation has similar requirements, but replacing a dog with a drone comes with a unique set of demands. First is getting a drone operating license, what Stohl did back in 2020. Next is selecting and purchasing a drone. There are two types of drones: recreational and commercial. Some of the differences between the two include the ability to work at night, waterproofing and the liability of using the unit. (Privately-owned recreational drones come with hefty liability to the individual owner.) Once a SAR volunteer is equipped with both a license and a drone, the work has just begun.
When Stohl gets a search call, she first assesses whether or not a drone would be of use. If so, she gathers topographical maps of the search area through a program called Terrain Navigator. She looks for the nearest airport to the search area in order to obtain a weather report and check for any local flight restrictions. If there are flight restrictions, it’s up to Stohl to follow them. For example, if the search area overlaps with a nearby manned airport and control tower, Stohl cannot fly or search without exceptional reason and special permissions — which can take up to 90 days to receive. If she does fly in a restricted area, a program on her drone will shut it down so that it cannot trespass a forbidden airspace. Additionally, if there are any aircrafts in the area (like a helicopter), they have the right of way; helicopters cannot detect nearby drones, but drones can detect nearby helicopters. Stohl must await permission from the aircraft before searching the area.
Much like canine handlers, Stohl has plenty of prep work to do before receiving a search call. With a battery-powered drone that requires frequent charging, Stohl has to make sure she has a spare set of batteries charged and ready to go. She also has to be prepared for the weather conditions; drones are challenging to operate in the winter, and keeping hands and toes warm is crucial.
All of this requires gear, and gear requires funding. The cost of operations for New England K9 covers vests and GPS collars for the dogs to the actual drones themselves. The drone that Stohl recently upgraded to cost $15,000 for the platform alone; it would cost another $45,000 for programs that network back to a command post from the unit. While a number of brands help finance the organization, like Ruffwear and Minus33, they primarily rely on donations and grants to provide zero-cost search support to New Hampshire and Vermont.
It isn’t exactly a lucrative venture for individual volunteers, either. “Get ready for hard work without financial reward,” Richards says to prospective SAR handlers. “The other thing you have to be ready for is being on call 24/7 — that takes some getting used to.”
So what kind of teams are best-suited for SAR work? According to Donna Larson, vice president of New England K9, a very small percentage of trainees go on to get their certification because the handler and dog are evaluated as a team. A common misconception about canine SAR work is that the dog, and its nose, are the defining factors for success. “The truth is, without the handler guiding the search, the dog would be nowhere,” Richards says. “It’s the handler’s knowledge of scent science — combined with situational awareness, knowledge of the terrain, navigational skills and the dog’s olfactory skills — that make finding a subject possible. It is a true collaboration, which is a wonderful thing.”
And the dogs that show up most often in SAR work? You probably guessed it: German shepherds, Belgian malinois, golden retrievers, labrador retrievers, and, when they can learn to work collaboratively and not independently, hounds. As for humans, only two of New England K9’s 14 current handlers are male. Vaughan believes it’s because “women are cooperative and creative problem-solvers,” which is not to exclude the men on their team, but to explain why women are drawn to SAR work.
Vaughan sums up the interests of the entire New England K9 SAR team succintly: “SAR is composed of amazing folks, who devote time and energy and risk their lives to save others. There is a profound generosity and willingness to give their all, no questions asked. A total commitment to the call out.”
For more information on New England K9, or to support their efforts with a donation, visit nek9sar.org.