In May 2014, Lt. Chris Holmes and Rescue K9 Cazo were called to the scene of a building collapse on K Street NW.

An unoccupied brick building had partially collapsed, sending the third and fourth floors of the adjacent strip club into the second story, where The Cloakroom’s dancers were jumping from the windows. Holmes and Cazo were sent in to search for victims. “It was just raining bricks inside,” Holmes recalled recently at Engine 21 in Columbia Heights. 

Cazo completed his search within minutes, but the first-duty chief on the scene still believed he heard victims inside. Holmes trusted his dog. “He searched it and came back and was like, ‘Nobody’s here boss,” the D.C. Fire and EMS veteran says. “[The chief] said, ‘Are you sure?’ And I said, ‘Positive.’”

Moments later the unoccupied building’s interior collapsed completely as more of The Cloakroom came tumbling down. No one was inside—the voices had been coming from a radio.  

“We probably would have lost two rescue companies,” Holmes says. “My own guys say thank you, because they get to go home and see their kids the next day. We’re not planning for ten funerals because he did his job.” Cazo, a 9-year-old German shepherd, was awarded the Bronze Bar by DCFEMS and the Silver Medal of Valor by Mayor Vince Gray for his actions that day. 

For the past seven years, it’s been Cazo’s job to search for “live, concealed human beings” at the site of domestic and international building collapses. This month, his days of climbing through rubble are set to come to an end. But that doesn’t mean the dissolution of the city’s program. In fact, DCFEMS, coming out of a period of embattlement, is preparing to devote even more resources to search and rescue K9s.

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Since Cazo joined the department in November 2007, he’s gone on about 1,000 calls, Holmes estimates. He’s likely the busiest urban search and rescue dog in the country, Holmes says, and he’s been deployed to some of the worst disasters to hit both the D.C. area and the world as part of FEMA Virginia Task Force One, one of just 28 urban search and rescue response teams in the U.S.

When a Red Line train derailed in 2009, killing nine people, Cazo was there searching. When a school in Port-au-Prince collapsed in 2008, killing dozens of children, Cazo was sent to the scene. He returned to Haiti in 2010 when an earthquake devastated the country.  And just this week, when a magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, Cazo’s retirement was put on hold as he and Holmes were deployed to Kathmandu.

At home in D.C., Cazo is called to about three building collapses a month. In 15 to 20 minutes, he can completely search a building that would take human rescuers days to survey. Cazo’s also deployed for water rescues: Seven people have been saved from the Anacostia and Potomac rivers during Cazo’s tenure, thanks in part to his nose; he can smell a live victim through 20 feet of water.

“We’re looking for like five to six percent of the dog population who can do our work,” Holmes says. Becoming certified is like earning a PhD and requires a dog excel in the areas of agility, strength (of both body and nerves), and toy and prey drive. The dog should also be able to follow directions in a chaotic situation, which is why Cazo learned commands in German.  

“All he cares about is getting that toy,” Holmes says. “For them, it’s like a game of hide-and-seek.” The dogs are trained to bark when they smell a live victim, who they believe has a toy and wants to play. “He’s barking for the victim to come out,” Holmes explains. “It’s victim loyalty.”

As opposed to some law enforcement dogs, who always work in partnership with an officer, search and rescue dogs are sent into dangerous situations alone as the event unfolds. “If it’s too dangerous for us to go inside, he’s like a gazelle—he can work his way through… and stay there until we can shore up [the scene] with wood and can get there. He’ll stay there with the victim.”

I spoke with Holmes 15 years to the day he began his DCFEMS career with Truck Company 3. In 2003, he joined Rescue Squad 3, which is responsible for responding to all cave-ins and collapses in the city.

“I noticed that we would go to a lot of these building collapses… and we really didn’t have a sure way to see if anyone was trapped inside,” he says. “I went out and paid for my own training, paid for my own dog, went through the class, got certified, got Cazo certified, and came to the department and said, ‘Look at this tool I have.’”

Holmes took out two loans to pay for the training ($3,500) and for Cazo ($6,500). “It was a leap of faith, but I could see it was well worth it,” he says, adding that the overall cost of training and maintaining a dog is much cheaper than the many thousands needed for tools and supplies to shore up each collapse scene.

He scheduled a live demonstration for his boss at the urging of his “Yoda,” Sonja Heritage of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation and formerly of Fairfax County’s urban search and rescue team. Heritage hid two live people in a city block’s worth of rubble, left behind by a demolished building, in Navy Yard and sent her dog, Cazo’s sire, to search. The dog found them in eight minutes. 

“Chris came to me because he truly wanted to be a handler,” says Heritage by email. “He felt the citizens of D.C. needed the resource desperately.”

While Cazo—a “world class disaster search dog,” according to Heritage—will soon be retired from rubble work (it requires dogs to make six-foot jumps and navigate tricky, dangerous terrain), he will continue to respond to water rescues and do outreach work like mercury detection, meet-and-greets, and serving as a reading buddy in schools. He’ll still live with Holmes and the lieutenant’s family, as well as his replacement, Kimber, who passed her certification earlier this month. She’ll be joined by three other search and rescue dogs this summer as DCFEMS prepares to expand its program. 

Holmes isn’t sure he’ll always be a K9 handler. He wants to rise up in the ranks, as he thinks he could be a good manager. 

“I’m just glad the department is taking on new dogs,” he says. “It’s almost like passing on the torch.”

But no matter his role within DCFEMS, Holmes will stay involved in the program. The quality of the dog and its training, he says, is just too important. Holmes relates this story:

In 2009, two people went into the Potomac by the Chain Bridge—a child who fell in and a good samaritan who tried to save him. Cazo and Holmes were sent to locate the victims. Cazo found one victim in the rapids near the bridge, pinned to the rocks by the rushing water. Holmes rewarded Cazo and, with the boat at full-throttle, prepared to return to the shore. Cazo urged him forward. “Always trust your dog,” Holmes remembered as he advanced another 30 or 40 yards. There was the second victim. 

“I always trust him.” 

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

Correction: This piece originally misstated the year of The Cloakroom collapse.