Volcanic eruptions, active shooters, earthquakes and crime — they’re all emergencies Thurston County residents need to be prepared for, according to local authorities. And thanks to Saturday’s Emergency Preparedness Expo, hosted by Thurston County Emergency Management, some locals are better equipped to handle a variety of situations.
Agencies ranging from the Tumwater Fire Department to the state Department of Natural Resources gathered at Peter G. Schmidt Elementary School for the daylong event, doing demonstrations and presentations, handing out pamphlets and educating the public. Personnel from the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office — both human and K-9 — were also on hand to show spectators what makes a good patrol dog.
Deputy Rod Ditrich introduced the Sheriff’s Office’s newest dog, Marko, and his handler, Deputy Chris Packard. The duo started training only two weeks ago, but veteran K-9 trainer Ditrich explained that despite his unusual past, Marko is one of the most talented dogs he has ever worked with.
Marko, a Belgian Malinois, was found wandering on Steamboat Island by a local veterinarian. When his owners couldn’t be located, Marko was taken to an animal shelter. Noticing Marko’s intelligence and talent, the shelter manager called Ditrich and asked if the Sheriff’s Office was looking for a new K-9.
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Ditrich said he knew almost instantly that Marko was a perfect fit.
“This dog has tested better than any other dog I’ve worked with,” Ditrich said.
Ditrich then brought out Rex, an 8-year-old German shepherd. The duo began working together eight years ago when the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office revived its K-9 program.
Rex works as a patrol dog, so searching for evidence isn’t his primary job, Ditrich explained. He’s tasked with tracking, catching suspects and protecting Ditrich. The team showed off their skills with the help of Packard, who donned a padded sleeve for Rex to bite.
As Packard ran across the school’s field, Ditrich told Rex to catch him. Rex took off running and caught Packard, biting him on the arm. With a single command, Ditrich was able to get Rex to let go.
“We only use our dogs on someone who has committed a significant crime and needs to got to jail,” Ditrich said. “And with a dog, the suspect has the ability to give up at the last minute. We can give a command and no harm will come to him.”
Packard said that even after three years of playing the bad guy in dog training, he still loves his job.
“Three years later, I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world,” Packard said.
But the experts didn’t just focus on human-caused emergencies. Tim Walsh, chief geologist for the state Department of Natural Resources, taught spectators about Washington’s volcanoes and how they could affect Thurston County.
He explained that even though Mount St. Helens has been the most active volcano during the past century, Mount Rainier actually poses the biggest threat to Western Washington — including Thurston County — because of the population near the mountain. The nature of Mount Rainier’s eruptions is also worrisome.
“We know that Mount Rainier produces very large lahars, and in the past they’ve come down the Nisqually River,” Walsh said.
Lahars are produced when water is released suddenly from a volcano and when a significant amount of snow melts, Walsh said. The extreme temperatures also cause solid rock to melt into free-flowing clay.
“A whole side of a mountain can collapse and flow into the rivers,” Walsh said.
Mount Rainier last showed significant activity in the 1800s with a few steam eruptions, Walsh said. The last major eruption took place about 1,100 years ago. But because the tectonics impacting the mountain haven’t changed since then, it’s only a matter of time before it erupts again.
Walsh explained that government agencies learned a lot about volcano monitoring during the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, and continual monitoring of local mountains — including Mount Rainier — has continued since then.
“We know when to send out the various warnings to keep people safe,” Walsh said.