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Search and rescue teams learn from McKeesport police crime scene class

| Monday, July 1, 2013, 1:47 p.m.
During a Saturday workshop led by McKeesport police, Donna Ruzewski and Bob Ruzewski of White Oak Search and Rescue listen as Heather Houlahan of Allegheny Mountain Search and Rescue shares her experience in navigating a potential crime scene.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
During a Saturday workshop led by McKeesport police, Donna Ruzewski and Bob Ruzewski of White Oak Search and Rescue listen as Heather Houlahan of Allegheny Mountain Search and Rescue shares her experience in navigating a potential crime scene.
McKeesport Lt. Tim Bliss, who heads the police department's K-9 Unit, offers guidance on handling work dogs in a potential crime scene.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
McKeesport Lt. Tim Bliss, who heads the police department's K-9 Unit, offers guidance on handling work dogs in a potential crime scene.

Members of the Western Pennsylvania Search and Rescue Alliance learned how to work a crime scene Saturday at a class taught by McKeesport police.

Lt. Tim Bliss, who heads the K-9 Unit, and Detective Joe Osinski shared insights with K-9 handlers, EMTs, paramedics, search operation managers and other rescue personnel whose assignments often overlap with criminal investigations.

“If we are going out to find someone who is lost, we don't know what happened,” said K-9 handler Donna Ruzewski from White Oak. “Any search and rescue can turn into a crime scene, and because we work closely with police we have to learn to work well together.”

Allegheny County Search and Rescue coordinator Mark Jones, who is White Oak's emergency management coordinator, said training with law enforcement is essential for situational awareness.

“It opens these folks' eyes to what they should be thinking of, because a lot of our people end up in crime scenes whether they know it or not,” Jones said. “As we're searching, we need to know what we're getting ourselves into.”

Bliss defined the moment when a search and rescue situation becomes a crime scene, a transition often first experienced by K-9 handlers.

“The dog is finding evidence that people may not see,” he said. “It could be a footprint, a discarded cigarette butt, a small toy that a child may have been carrying. The handler needs to know how to protect that evidence and who to notify.”

Osinski educated rescuers on how law enforcement officers handle evidence.

“If no one tells them how to do something, we can't fault them for doing it wrong,” he said. “We're giving them insight. All they know about crime scene investigations is what they see on TV, and that's not how it is in real life.”

Bliss and Osinski encouraged rescuers to be aware of their surroundings, not only to preserve evidence but to prevent themselves from becoming victims. If rescuers locate an injured person, they said, it's important to contact authorities with a precise location before reaching out to the victim.

Bliss said handlers should pay close attention to the terrain when leading dogs on a search opertation. Dangers such as broken glass and chemicals on the ground could be more dangerous to dogs than to their handlers.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1956, or jvertullo@tribweb.com.

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