Surfside building collapse: Who are Oreo and Phorce? Hero K9s working amid rubble to save lives

Pet therapy dogs are working at the site as well, helping family members cope with the tragic Surfside building collapse


                            Surfside building collapse: Who are Oreo and Phorce? Hero K9s working amid rubble to save lives
Los Angeles County Fire Department urban search and rescue dog Baxter and handler Gary Durian (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The June 24 collapse of Champlain Towers South condominium in Miami-Dade County has seen a number of heroes working day and night to look for persons unaccounted for in the rubble. And some of the heroes aren’t human. They are rescue dogs.

There are roughly two dozen dogs in Surfside this week searching the rubble pile for live victims. The dogs work in rotating shifts, with each dog working about ten minutes at a time, usually during a shift change or when equipment is being changed out and the site is quiet.

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Miami-Dade Fire Rescue personnel continue search and rescue operations in the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As per the Miami Herald, these dogs are divided into two groups — “life-find” K-9s working in rescue, looking for survivors; and human-remains or cadaver K-9s working in recovery. They’re known as HRDs and look for bodies. The cadaver dogs’ names, the Herald reported, are Fierce, Flame, and Phreya.

The dog handlers, as per the report, are members of Task Force 1 and 2 of South Florida’s Urban Rescue Team, which is assisting Miami-Dade Fire Rescue in the operation. As per the Tampa Bay Times, the Tampa Fire Rescue has its own K-9 unit for disasters like this. This includes Lt Brian Smithey and his black Labrador retriever Patron, who is trained to find human scent.

Even when dogs cannot reach their target, they get as close as possible, stick their head toward the origin of the scent, and bark loudly. And as dogs can fit into tighter spaces than humans, they provide a marker for extraction crews. “To the dogs, it’s just a big game of hide-and-seek,” Smithey said.

Cheryl Hazelton, a former K-9 deputy with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and with the military, told the Tampa Bay Times that there are two types of animals working at the building collapse scene — low- and high-titration dogs. The dogs differ in how they’re rewarded. Verbal praise for low-titration dogs, and toys and treats for the high-titration variety.

WFTV reported that one of the rescue dogs from Florida Task Force 3, who are working overtime to help search for victims, is called Phorce. Part of a four-dog team from Task Force 3, Phorce’s job is to sniff the rubble pile in search of live victims.

Search and Rescue personnel work after the partial collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 24, 2021 in Surfside, Florida (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In May 2020, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office reportedly added its first “live-find” K-9, a Labrador retriever called Maddie, who is part of the 30 K9 teams the Sheriff’s Office has set up with help from community contributions. “We can send the dogs in and in a number of minutes we can locate a live person,” Smithey said.

And it’s not just American dogs on duty at Surfside right now. A dog named Oreo, a Pomsky (part Pomeranian, part Siberian husky) trained to find living victims in disasters, is assisting with the search. Oreo's handler, Moises Soffer, is with an organization called Cadena International and is from Mexico. 

But rescue dogs aren’t the only dogs on the site. On Twitter, the account for Oscar, a pet therapy dog for the fire service, announced on June 28, “Today Oscar and I spent the day at the hotel where the families of the victims from the building collapse in Surfside were staying. It was very emotional and hard. There were times I wanted to break down. Never take a day for granted.” 

The Herald’s Samantha Gross tweeted: “Jeepers, 5, is the Miami-Dade Police Department Community Affairs Bureau therapy dog who was brought in to provide some smiles to children at the family reunification site at the Surfside Community Center. Still a lot of people filtering in and out.”



 



 

Many online showed their appreciation for these dogs. “They deserve our respect and gratitude---the search and rescue dogs that have been working around the clock at the collapsed building in Surfside,” wrote a Twitter account. Another person wrote, “Search and rescue dogs on scene at the Surfside building collapse...dogs are so very good...hug your pup.” “Sending a big thank you to the Search & Rescue Dogs of @MiamiDadeFire who are trying to find survivors of the condo collapse in Surfside, Florida,” said one person. 



 



 



 

On Monday, June 28, The death toll rose to 11 after searchers found two more victims, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said. The number of missing people decreased to 150, and the number of people who have been accounted for increased to 136, the mayor said.

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