23 February 2005
The Philippines is the most disaster-prone country in the world, according to a Brussels-based research center study in 2000.
For American Renee J. Speltz, not having a canine search and rescue team in an area where 70-80 per cent of natural disasters occur was simply unthinkable. And so, despite a barrage of well-meaning naysayers and numerous other obstacles, she established from scratch two years ago Asia-Pacific's first and only K9 search and rescue group.
"It was a challenge for me when people said the Philippines was not ready for an organization like this, that it wa not doable, that I wouldn't get volunteers. Of course the country is ready if the people are," Speltz says.
Now nearing 200 members, the Philippine Canine Search and Rescue Association Inc. (PHK9SAR) is nonprofit organization recognized by the US National Association for Search and Rescue, on standby 24 hours a day for emergency calls requiring canine search.
SAR dogs can find victims of floods, mudslides, typhoons, earthquake, fire, plane crashes, explosion and other disasters; lost children or old people; missing trekkers or mountain climbers; etc.
Filipinos, however, fail to recognize the importance of canine SAR, Speltz says. PHK9SAR, for instance, has yet to see the day when it gets the first call during an emergency.
Speltz says the Philippines is an ideal location for the region since it is just a few hours away from everywhere else. Communication won't be a problem either as Filipinos are fluent in English.
"We will mobilize if you need us, but you will have to call us immediately if there's a disaster. Our guys are not for show. They are volunteers who believe in the sanctity of human lives. Our aim is to find victims and save lives. We need the public to understand what we do, why we are doing it and who are we doing it for."
Unlike most countries in the West, volunteerism is an idea not well-received by Filipinos. Not at all surprising, considering this is a land where most people worry primarily about where to get their next meal. Speltz, however, is not losing hope.
"It's not always the government's job to make lives better. We have to help ourselves. We are responsible for each other. If [only] people understand and see how good volunteerism feels. Our guys are not rich. They are regular guys, and yet they never give up. They believe in the canine SAR idea. That, for me, is already a huge success," she says.