Like most things in life, the hardest thing to do is take that first step. Up until now, it’s taken around 18 months of me thinking about this project to actually set up the first photoshoot and start typing these words.
The introduction to the K9 Search & Rescue NI team came about via Twitter. The person I initially asked was unable to help me in this project due to a change in careers. Instead of letting the trail going cold I asked them if they’d be able to help me with some other introductions. One of the people they mentioned to me was Ryan from K9 Search & Rescue NI. I had no idea such a team exisited in Northern Ireland but going on my friends recommendation I got in touch.
I met Ryan and team a couple weeks ago at Helens Bay. All of the guys who work in the K9 team were based around North Down. To keep travel to a minimum we met at Grey Point Fort. The trails from here to Helens Bay would give me enough background variety to ensure the photos wouldn’t all look the same.
Whilst the shoot unfolded I spoke to Ryan and his colleages about how the unit come to being. He said the idea to form a K9 SAR unit came around in October 2017. Ryan and his dog Max first had to become qualified through an external organisation, the National Association of Specialist Dog Users recognised by the ACPO. After the qualifcations were gained, Ryan and team approached the Coastguard about becoming an assest to the service. Due to a lot of paperwork and governance they didn’t become fully operational in March 2019. More checks were completed and over time the team became the first and only dedicated, declared K9 Search & Rescue team to HM Coastguard in the UK and Northern Ireland.
K9 Search & Rescue NI primarily cover the coastline of Northern Ireland including Lough Neagh and Lough Erne, but due to the link with HM Coastgaurd can respond to requests all over the UK. Ryan spoke about how they train with the Dublin-Wicklow Mountain Rescue K9 unit, further expanding their skill set and geographical reach. Due to this training link, K9 Search & Rescue NI can be called into the ROI as well as the Dublin-Wicklow team into the North.
Currently K9 Search & Rescue NI are a five man team with five dogs. There are various roles in the team from team leader to admin assistants. The mix in roles also extend to the dogs. For example, Max (Ryans black labrador) is a level 3 airscenting search dog who’s been trained to move in collapsed buildings where as Jamies dog (golden cocker) specialises in the recovery of dead bodies aka cadavers.
As the shoot was progressed we moved along the trail back towards Helens Bay from Grey Point Fort. We talked a lot about the physical and practical aspects of the K9 unit but I was curious to find out about the mental elements. I quizzed Ryan about the emotions that surface when his team find who they’re looking for. He said the feeling of finding someone alive was amazing and you would be buzzing for days. He spoke about how rewarding it is knowing all the training paid off and you made a positive difference in someones life.
Coming to the end of the shoot I asked about what happens when the search isn’t a success. I guessed that not all searches result in finding the person well and alive. Ryan spoke about a recent search effort to find a young person in the south of Northern Ireland. The young man they were searching for was found submerged in water. Ryans dog, Max was indicating he was there. After a short time and a clarification check, the divers were called in. The young man was 15 years old. Ryan spoke about having mixed feelings after this search. In one hand he felt really down about finding the victim, yet he was proud of Max doing what he was trained to do. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is massive thing for these guys and dogs to contend with. Jamie told me that they’ve all suffered from sleepless nights and flashbacks to past events. They’ve all at some point had to take time off work.
Before wrapping the shoot up, I asked why the K9 unit was formed. Considering they all have full time jobs already, this was a massive commitment to take on. Ryan and Jamie both spoke about the need to find people that humans could never find. Often the Coastgaurd had to search for people who didn’t want to be found. Without dogs, many of the people would never be located. Couple the senses of the dogs, and the abilities of their human handlers the K9 unit is a formidable search assest when it comes to finding people, both dead and alive.
Flipping back in to photography mode, I found the shoot challenging but enjoyable. On one hand I had to be technically mindful of the hardware I was using making sure I got the photos I needed. On the other hand I had to interview the team and retain all the information to write this post. This all had to happen at the same time. By the end of the shoot I was absolutely shattered.
If you’re interested in supporting Ryan and his team make sure to jump over to the K9 Search & Rescue FB page and give them a like.
Interested in what you’ve seen here? Get in touch if you’d like to take part.