A few years ago, we learned a little bit about how the explosive detection dogs who keep Metro safe are trained. But what happens after they’re all trained up and ready to go? Do they just spend all of their time patrolling Metro’s buses, trains and stations, sniffing out danger?
Turns out, there’s a little bit more than that. I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with two of the specialist K9 teams who protect our system, and here’s what they really get up to.
Senior Officer Henry Solis has been a member of the Metro Transit Enforcement Services for 28 years. That means he’s been protecting Metro since Metro was known as RTD. In fact, his ties to transit go back further than his own employment. He grew up in Southern California as an avid bus rider, and his father is a retired RTD bus operator! His most recent K9 partner is a little bit newer to transit: Ivana is a sweet, highly energetic two-and-a-half year old Dutch Shepherd. Those of you who travel through Union Station in the mornings have probably seen them around before — because one of their jobs is to be highly visible.
“High visibility detail is meant to act as a deterrent. People who might cause trouble on the system spot us and turn right around,” said Officer Solis.
That morning, we spent time being visible in Union Station’s East Portal, and at the bottom of the stairs of the subway entrance. Ivana is trained to position herself downwind so that the breeze brings all sorts of scents straight to her. When she’s on the job, everything about her is alert. Her ears are up and her eyes are bright, and even though she’s lying down, you can tell she’s actively parsing every odor that comes her way. And if a suspicious smell floats by, Ivana will track the scent trail until it leads to whatever is emitting it. Then she’ll sit, and that’s when Officer Solis takes over.
Bomb dogs are trained to detect certain odors on items as small as bullet shell casings, so you can imagine anything even slightly bigger will catch their attention. And the dogs are always training. Each day, Ivana goes through “maintenance training” to keep her skills sharp, and twice a month the team participates in all-day explosives training.
Besides patrolling our stations, Officer Solis and Ivana frequently roll out to Metro’s various bus and rail divisions to make sure they are safe and secure. They also assist the Sheriffs with calls for service, or work special Metro events such as our groundbreakings, station openings and press events. And as if that weren’t enough, they also train with and assist other law enforcement agencies because a good dog is hard to find!
Even though they are kept pretty busy, Officer Solis and Ivana still make time to meet and greet Metro customers. During the short time I was with them, no less than 15 people came by to say hello, ask for directions and ask to take photos of the super adorable Ivana. Most times, Officer Solis is more than happy to oblige, but keep in mind that Ivana is still on the job, so please be respectful with your requests.
If the time I spent with Officer Solis and Ivana was fairly routine, my afternoon with Sergeant Justin Walter from the LASD Transit Bureau North and his partner Folti was kind of a wild ride. I met up with them thinking we would be going over some training exercises and patrolling El Monte Station, but instead we headed right out to a call in West Hollywood.
“Ninety-nine percent of our job is to keep Metro moving. Usually, just being visible is enough to deter would-be threats from happening, and our most important job is to do our best to clear each incident before it affects service,” said Sergeant Walter.
And that other one percent?
“We get a call asking for bomb dogs, we go.”
Out in West Hollywood, cars and buses were being detoured around the cordoned off area due to a report of an unattended package in a parking lot. Even with lights and sirens on, getting there was hard going — I thought cars would magically melt of our way, like in the movies, but nope. Traffic in L.A. can really be that bad, and that’s why it sometimes takes so long to clear an incident. Law enforcement takes each and every call seriously, which means following protocol, which means they absolutely have to wait until the K9s or Arson/Explosives Division arrives to pronounce the area safe. The incident was cleared shortly after the LASD bomb squad arrived…and just in time for us to respond to another call in Culver City.
During the car ride, Folti was calm and hardly bothered by the sirens. Turns out the German Shorthaired Pointer is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, so he’s pretty used to loud noises. Folty spent a year overseas with the Army, working to detect improvised explosive devices (IEDs). He returned to the States after sustaining a leg injury from a wild boar attack that took place while he was searching the road in front of a convoy. Luckily, the injury was minor, and Folti has completely healed and is happily working with Sergeant Walter.
In Culver City, police were cordoning off the street around a suspicious vehicle that had been called in because it was parked illegally, but had not been moved despite security advising the driver to do so. We joined local law enforcement in a staging area a safe distance away from the reported vehicle. Besides investigating a possible explosive device, bomb dogs also work to make sure the staging area is secure. It’s an unfortunate truth, but sometimes first responders themselves become a target.
Luckily, the situation in Culver City was resolved safely, and the road was opened back up. After a long afternoon running around L.A. County, the day wasn’t over for Sergeant Walter and Folti. Folti also goes through maintenance training each day, and there was still their usual tasks of patrolling stations, maintenance yards, trains and buses to complete. And of course, if there’s another call to investigate an unattended item, they’ll have to go. Folti good-naturedly takes it all on. At six-years-old, he’s not as rambunctious as Ivana, but he’s still got plenty of energy left to finish his shift.
Having a K9 partner is no easy task. Besides the standard duties and long hours that come with being a law enforcement officer, the officers have to learn a whole new way to communicate. The officers become responsible for keeping their canine partners happy, healthy and clean. Their uniform is often covered with dog hair and drool. And they have a partner whose paws definitely won’t be able to help with the paperwork. But neither Officer Solis nor Sergeant Walter would have it any other way. That doggy smell that permeates your life?
“You get used to it.”
“If You See Something, Say Something” — if you see an unattended item or someone behaving suspiciously on board the Metro system, you can report it by calling 911, 888.950.SAFE or using the emergency intercoms on board trains and in stations. You can also report non-emergency incidents with the LA Transit Watch app.
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