COASTAL CITIES — Last July, a young boy was riding on a jetski near the Oceanside Harbor when he was thrown off the watercraft.
His family watched helplessly as big surf threatened to slam him into a rock pile. The clock was ticking. A boat rescue was too risky, but a special lifeguard dog was on hand.Rummy, an 8-year-old Labrador retriever, hopped in the rough water and swam toward the boy with a long rescue tube. Panic stricken with minor cuts, the boy calmed down when Rummy reached him. The boy clung onto Rummy’s custom lifeguard jacket and the dog pulled him to a boat operated by Niki Burgan, an American Red Cross Lifeguard Instructor and Rummy’s handler. Rummy still wasn’t finished. The dog headed for the jetski and hooked it with the rescue tube, allowing Burgan to haul the watercraft in.
Burgan created the SoCal H2O Rescue Team, the U.S.’s first K-9 lifeguard team, in 2009, and Rummy has been making rescues since. While the SoCal H20 Rescue Team has saved lives, it was born from tragedy.
Burgan’s mother, sister and stepfather died in a small-plane crash off of Carlsbad’s coastline in 2007.
“The state had minimal resources to recover their bodies with all the budget cuts,” Burgan said.
Fishermen recovered her mother and sister’s bodies. Her stepfather’s body was never found. Consequently, Burgan believes specially trained search-and-rescue dogs could have made the difference in locating his body. Burgan knew she had to do something.
“I really thought that there’s got to be a better way to do this,” said Burgan, who volunteered to train her dogs. “Dogs are cost effective and have abilities people don’t. The idea wasn’t to take lifeguard’s jobs. It was to give them another resource.”
Due to Burgan’s passionate efforts, The California Department of Parks and Recreation and local governments backed Burgan’s plan for a nonprofit K-9 lifeguard team, which currently includes Burgan, other lifeguards, Rummy and two other dogs.
“Our number of dogs hasn’t expanded over the years, but what we’re asked to do has greatly expanded,” Burgan said.
The SoCal H2O Rescue Team is primarily known for aquatic rescues. But they’re also trained to help on land. Last September, for example, Burgan and Rummy helped find a missing child in San Bernardino as part of a statewide search.
As for the coast, Rummy regularly finds missing children at local beaches. Not to mention, in the event of a bluff or seawall collapse, Rummy and the other dogs are trained to search through the rubble for victims.
The dogs are trained at various beaches throughout North County two or three times a week for several hours each session. One exercise simulates ocean rescues. For example, while Rummy is told to wait on the beach, a lifeguard floats beyond where the waves are breaking and waves his or her arms. Then Rummy is given the green light. With a rescue tube attached his lifeguard jacket, he punches through the surf and pulls the lifeguard in, even in waves as large as 10 feet — a testament to Rummy’s swimming ability and understanding of rip currents.
“We do it at beaches with plenty of distractions to recreate the real thing,” Burgan said. “It keeps him sharp.”
When not at the beach, to further develop Rummy’s keen sense of smell, Burgan will plant different scents on complicated trails and have Rummy track each one. Going forward, Bergen wants to train Rummy and the other dogs to detect and stop human trafficking groups that are arriving on San Diego beaches.
The SoCal H2O Rescue Team relies on private and corporate donations. Additionally, it’s received a lot of fanfare since its inception. The team was at the 2011 Encinitas Holiday Parade, a TV show may be in the works and Rummy is a nominee in the American Humane Association’s 2012 Hero Dog Awards.
“We’ve gotten a really good response,” Burgan said. “I owe it all to that fact that I always think my mom and dad are watching over me.”
Visit socalh2orescueteam.com to donate or for more information.
This story has been changed since its original posting. It was incorrectly reported that Niki Burgan’s dog Rummy is the only National Association for Search and Rescue certified dog in California. Rummy is not NASAR certified. Further, there are more than 145 NASAR certified canine teams trained in various disciplines in California. The Coast News regrets the error.