May 1, 2011
By Julie Summers Walker
Six teams from the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (NDSDF) traveled to the northeast coast of Japan in March to help find survivors buried in the ruins created by the devastating earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck March 11. The teams of six dogs and their firefighter handlers are a part of the only organization in the United States dedicated to partnering rescued dogs with firefighters to train them to find live victims, conscious or unconscious, in disaster areas. The founder of this remarkable agency is a small, unassuming bespectacled mother, grandmother, and former physical education schoolteacher who trained her own dog, a black lab named Murphy, in disaster search and who assisted at the Oklahoma City bombing. In interviews when asked why she created NDSDF, Wilma Melville always softly replies, “I was at Oklahoma City. It completely changed my life.”
Melville started flying in 1970 with her late husband, John. The couple built and flew a Rutan-designed VariEze. After her husband’s death, it was 20 years before Melville flew again. She tackled the training with great help from Judy Phelps of CP Aviation in Santa Paula, this year’s CFI of the Year. Melville’s most recent aviation accomplishment is her instrument rating, which she earned in October 2010. At the age of 76.
Melville’s newest dog, Newton, isn’t a search and rescue dog, but is a very good lap sitter.
Now living in a hangar home at Santa Paula Airport with her RV–10 emblazoned with the NDSDF logo (black labs like Murphy were the inspiration), Melville leaves the running of her organization to executive director Debra Tosch. Since its founding in 1996, NDSDF has trained 117 search teams, 75 of which are currently active. The dogs are all rescued from shelters—many near euthanasia—and trained to alert human rescue personnel with a “bark alert,” which lets rescuers know there is someone in need of rescue. NDSDF teams have responded to 76 disasters including the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina, and the Haiti earthquake. The six teams in Japan were only on site for one week; the tsunami made the expedition a recovery operation—there was no need for search and rescue.
NDSDF receives no government funding and relies on support from individuals, private foundations, and corporate sponsors. This year, the organization plans to train 21 new teams ($15,000 per team) and is actively planning a national training center to be located in Santa Paula. For more information visit SearchDogFoundation.org.
(In the interest of full disclosure, Wilma Melville is the mother of Senior Editor Dave Hirschman.)
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.
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