The ground was scorching hot, the air oppressive and still firefighter John Gilkey and his K-9 partner, Piper, spent almost two weeks in Maui helping with search efforts after wildfires ravaged the area.
“The average ground temperature in the afternoon was upwards of 170 degrees,” Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service (MCFRS) Captain and Maryland Task Force 1 Leader Jason Light said at an Aug. 30 press conference after Gilkey and other MCFRS firefighters returned from Hawaii.
Gilkey’s job was to help Piper search for human remains. The 5-year-old black Labrador is trained to sniff out people who are alive, and she is also trained as a cadaver dog, Gilkey said. The ground in Maui was so hot that Piper had to wear booties for the first time while she worked.
“[The wildfires] heated everything up. It was even tough walking in the grass. The only place really to escape the heat was in our vehicle,” Gilkey, 58, of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, said. “For the firefighters working in that, it was pretty rough.”
Gilkey was one of 73 MCFRS firefighters sent to Hawaii with Maryland Task Force 1, one of FEMA’s 28 Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) teams around the country, according to Light.
A communications specialist, John Freeburger was deployed on Aug. 11. Two K-9 teams, Alan Rossi with his dog, Phirst, and Gilkey with Piper were deployed on Aug. 13, and 70 personnel were deployed on Aug. 16, Light said during the press conference.
They were sent, along with teams from around the country, to aid in recovery efforts after the Maui wildfires that burned for weeks in August. The fires claimed the lives of at least 115 people, with 66 people remaining unaccounted for.
Gilkey and Piper have worked together since 2017, and Gilkey praises his four-legged friend for her keen abilities.
“Piper has found things underwater. She’s found things from car accidents. She’s found things from building fires. She’s found things from building explosions,” Gilkey said adding that the scent she was looking for in Maui was different due to the size and intensity of the fires. “We were almost looking for cremated bodies.”
Here’s how the process works: The first dog is sent in to search an assigned area and when that dog smells something, they bark and alert the firefighters. A second dog is then sent in and if they bark in the same spot the first one did, then the handlers know they have found something, Gilkey said.
Then, Gilkey and Piper leave to search another area. Their job is just to locate remains, not recover them, which Gilkey appreciates.
“That, in essence, kind of shields me from seeing a lot of the things that a regular firefighter or the rescuer sees after I leave,” Gilkey said.
Even though he did not see some of the traumatizing sights that other firefighters may have seen, he said that just being there was difficult for all of them.
“Just being sent to a disaster takes a mental toll on you,” Gilkey said.
Gilkey said the US&R Team is so dedicated, especially in situations like this, because it is comprised of MCFRS firefighters who voluntarily applied for the job.
The job requires them to just drop everything and leave their homes and families for weeks at a time with little notice since disasters could happen at any moment.
“Whether we’re going to a hurricane or whether we’re going to a wildfire or whether we’re going to the Pentagon [like on 9/11], the guys on the team have stepped up and taken on that extra responsibility,” Gilkey said. “It’s something that you’ve got to be proud of.”
At the Aug. 30 press conference, Montgomery County Chief Administrative Officer Rich Madaleno expressed his gratitude for the personnel who went to Maui and pledged to support them and their families in any way he could.
“We certainly appreciate the sacrifice they made by going,” Madeleno said. “I think it speaks to the generosity of our community.”
Gilkey has been working for MCFRS as a K-9 firefighter and member of Maryland Task Force 1 for 20 years. Gilkey said he has been sent to many disasters during his career, including the 2017 wildfires in Oregon and Hurricane Ian in Florida in 2022.
Piper is the fourth K-9 Gilkey has worked with in his career. He started in Pennsylvania where he worked with two dogs before coming to Montgomery County.
Gilkey and Piper have bonded doing activities outside of their jobs. According to a baseball card with her face on it, that Gilkey says he gives to kids, Piper likes loves to play fetch, swim and hike when she’s off-duty.
Gilkey said that while Piper’s primary job while she is on-site is to perform search operations, her unofficial second job is providing comfort to those around her in a difficult time.
“When we’re in between jobs, she’s schmoozing with the firemen, and she’s allowing them to pet her,” Gilkey said.
But at the end of the day, she is Gilkey’s companion.
“She helps me too,” Gilkey said. “So that doesn’t go unnoticed with me.”