Roy Scholl’s grandfather once told him that life was like a three-legged stool. You need family and work, but you also need a third focus to keep the stool from falling over.
Scholl found that focus in the Pacific Northwest.
Living in Seattle after college, Scholl developed a love for mountaineering. As he acclimated to hiking in the Cascades, he began bumping into rescue crews. Ever-changing weather and precarious terrain meant the run-ins were common.
“These guys were the hot shots, and I decided it was something I wanted to do,” said Scholl. “Then I moved back to Alabama, where there was no need for mountain rescues.”
Instead, he turned to the internet and learned about the National Association of Search and Rescue, and an inquiry there pointed him to the Red Mountain Search Dog Association, a volunteer organization based in his hometown of Birmingham. After months of training, and a 300-question/five-activity testing routine, Scholl had his NASAR SARTECH2 certification and began serving with the team as a Search and Rescue Assistant (also known as a Flanker).
Red Mountain Search Dog Association was founded in 2014 by Stephen Burton and Kenny Powell.
“Neither of us had a background in search and rescue,” Burton said. “What brought us together initially? We both have Belgian Malinois.”
The dogs were sisters from the same litter, as a matter of fact. Belgian Malinois are dependable, intelligent, alert herders and are used by law enforcement and search teams across the globe.
Red Mountain’s human team quickly grew from a variety of occupations – professional photographer, speech pathologist, flight attendant, stay-at-home moms, banker and a University of Alabama professor. So, too, its reputation in law enforcement circles. Now, when trouble strikes, the team gets the call. Resourcefulness is the key.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, the Red Mountain team was called to the Florida Panhandle to provide immediate help. Scholl was called at work. Because his time on the mission required more than the vacation time he had remaining on the calendar, his co-workers at Regions chipped in by donating points from a departmental competition which translated into the time off needed to keep him covered.
The Red Mountain team set up base in Blountstown, Florida, about an hour from the heaviest damage in Panama City.
“Everything was in disarray,” Scholl said. “We got there before the National Guard did. Our first meeting was in the Emergency Management Services headquarters, in a basement of the courthouse, that was flooding.”
Normally, Red Mountain employs the K9s. But in the initial aftermath of the storm, the critical mission wasn’t search and rescue but clearing roads to provide access for the soon-to-arrive National Guard and local law enforcement.
“There was a lot of chaos, but we came prepared,” Scholl said. “We had a Bobcat, 10 chainsaws and enough fuel to get us there – and to get us back to Alabama.”
The team cleared roads leading to homes next to the Chipola River, which was beginning to crest. The imminent danger was flooding, and elderly residents who’d retired to the area were in danger if they couldn’t evacuate.
Within 24 hours, the roads were accessible, the Guard had arrived, and the Red Mountain team could return home before the last of its fuel ran out.
For Red Mountain, it was all in a day’s work. Which is why Scholl wanted to be a member. The search team trains weekly, attends regular seminars and must stay on top of annual training. A recent training session with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency included introductions to deployment by helicopter.
“I’ve never had to turn them down,” Scholl said. “I’m grateful that I work with a company that recognizes the need to serve your community.”
Regions provides a paid volunteer day for all employees each years, one of several ways of promoting volunteerism. Still, Scholl navigates the remainder of his service by using his flexible schedule at work. If all else fails, he burns vacation time.
The call for help usually comes in the early morning or late afternoons. For K9 rescues, it often means an elderly Alzheimer’s patient or a child has been reported missing. Because of Red Mountain’s reputation, as well as its relationship with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, they’re tasked to respond on short notice.
“I’m the point person for law enforcement and first responders,” Burton said. “If a person is missing in our area, they call us in. We stress that calling us as soon as possible is always best. We don’t care if you call us at 2 a.m. We train for this.”
A certified air-scent K9 works with its handler to clear large areas to find a person. The handler’s job is to make sure the dog is in the best position to make a find. The search strategy consists of variables like topography, weather, and time of day. The goal is to pick up scent downwind and follow it back to the person. Those dogs mainly work off a leash and out of sight. However, tracking/trailing dogs work on a leash and need to have a starting point – where a person was last seen. From there, they are able to follow the trail to the person.
“Scent theory is more difficult than it sounds,” Scholl said. “A clearing in a forest, with sun shining down, will cause heat to pull scent up into the air and drop it back down an eighth of a mile away. But it’s not going to lead you where you need to go. This type of anomaly is called a scent chimney.”
And the handlers have to be able to pick up on clues, added Burton. “Dogs tell us so much by body language. In-scent, a gait will change. They’ll hold the tail a different way, their ears raise, their breathing changes.”
Handling and training a K9 is a 24/7 task, one that Scholl just started. He received a Belgian Malinois from an out-of-state breeder who donated the dog when he learned of the Red Mountain connection.
His name is Pelham, and he is a member of the family. Now the hard work begins.
“Training your dog is a lot of work and everything is so critical,” Scholl said. “My first assignment is socialization, as I will be working to have Pelham meet 100 people before he is 14 weeks old.
“He is so young that certification for him will take time, but the drive he is illustrating so far is brilliant. Thanks to the support of my team and my company I’m confident we have what it takes.”
Soon, it will be off to the next rescue together.