For its ability to locate and identify human remains, a well-trained search dog is unparalleled. It brings efficiency and effectiveness during a search and rescue operation, and its capacity to discern scents unidentifiable by humans — often achieved while jumping, crawling, and running over piles of debris — is incomparable. In the early morning hours of June 14, 2016, two Human Remains Detection K9 teams serving the LAFD were dispatched to a structure fire in Los Angeles’ Westlake neighborhood. Due to the size of the vacant office building and the complexities involved in a HRD search, these teams were soon joined by a third team from FEMA California Task Force 5.

That morning, Firefighter Margaret Stewart and her partner K9 Veya, civilian Jeffrey Neu and his K9 Faith, and Deputy Sheriff Su Vodrazka and her K9 Riggs all arrived at the fatality fire ready for action. Veya and Riggs began their search immediately, while Faith, the rookie of the group, waited patiently, watching carefully and learning from the more experienced dogs.

Approximately 35 minutes into the search, Veya, who was making her way into a section of the building heavily impacted by a collapsed roof, abruptly altered her body language, increased her intensity, and provided a trained alert: a sit. These sequential shifts signaled that Veya had detected the scent of human remains. At that point, in accordance with FEMA standards, a second K9, Riggs, was deployed to the same area, where he independently verified an identical alert. Firefighters began digging and, upon the removal of approximately one foot of debris, four deceased victims became visible.
Veya, Riggs, and Faith then continued to search the rest of the building to ensure no bodies remained. The heroic work of K9’s Veya, Riggs, and Faith enabled the LAFD to provide notification and useful information to investigators and to the victims’ families. The determination and job performance of these three K9’s was deemed worthy of special commendation, demonstrating the integral role search dogs play for the LAFD.