On standby 24/7

2008-07-18 00:00

“Ispend more time with my dogs than I do with my family,” says Inspector Jack Haskins of the Pietermaritzburg dog unit. This poignant statement sums up the life of this well-known figure who is dedicated to serving others.

Haskins explains: “The South African Police Service’s [SAPS] main function is to combat crime, the Search and Rescue [S&R] unit is a specialist support function. It’s a community orientated operation encompassing water, air and land services. I have been in S&R for 15 years and by choice I am on standby 24 hours a day. I love what I do and I believe it’s my life’s purpose to serve the community, so I don’t mind being called out, whatever the time of day or night. In fact, it gives me a great thrill to serve others.”

He admits that his career has been very costly to his family life: “Few people understand what it means to be on standby 24/7,” he says. “It is hard to plan family outings or holidays because they are often interrupted by a call out. If we do plan anything, we have to have a back-up plan in case I have to leave. At times I know it has been very frustrating for my wife Vesta and my children Jack (22) and Samantha (20). However, despite having to share me with the public, they have given me great support and I’m grateful to them.”

Haskins was born in Manzini, Swaziland, and has four sisters and a brother. He went to school in Pietermaritzburg, attending Pelham Primary and Alexandra Boys’ High. After completing his two years of national service he worked in his father’s real estate business in the city. Two of his sisters were in the SAPS, which pricked his interest, so he too joined the service in 1977. “After six months’ basic training I was posted to Oliviershoek in the Drakensberg for a year, then to Dannhauser for two years. I moved to Pietermaritzburg in 1980. My parents owned a roadhouse called the Owl’s Nest in Chapel Street, where I often met SAPS dog handlers. That’s how I became interested in the Dog Unit. I applied to join, was accepted and transferred in 1981. At first I worked with a patrol dog attending to general crime-related complaints, but soon I went on to train the same dog as an explosives dog. This involved checking ‘suspicious packages’ and responding to ‘bomb scares’.”

The first S&R dogs trained to find missing persons were introduced into the SAPS in 1994. Haskins’ dog at the time was Rolf and the pair were among the first in South Africa to be trained in S&R. Rolf retired from duty in 1999 and died of old age in 2001.

Following Rolf was Vos, with whom Haskins worked for 18 months. “Unfortunately he was killed by a car while searching for a missing person. Many people probably remember my next dog, Orca. Unfortunately, he developed arthritis and hip dysplasia so I had to pension him off in 2005. I trained Rolf and Orca myself, while Vos and my current dog, Udaine, came to me trained, after their handlers left the SAPS. I also have Butch, a biological body fluids detection dog.

“You have to have a very close bond with a dog to work well together and it’s very hard when you have to end a working relationship and get a new partner. I have to understand the way my dog works and read his body language so I know what he is telling me and each dog is different.”

Among Haskins’ memorable experiences are receiving the coveted SAP Silver Cross for Bravery. He was one of 14 Pietermaritzburg policemen to receive the award in August 1991 for saving victims trapped in the 1987 floods. He was also part of the first South African S&R team to go overseas when he and his dog went to India after an earthquake in 2001. In 2003, they went to help after an earthquake in Algeria. In 2006, Orca received the SAPS Canine and Equine Star for Bravery awarded by the National Commissioner, for outstanding work while searching for two missing boys in the Drakensberg.

“One of the local highlights was in April last year, when I found a newborn boy, alive in a pit latrine in Dambuza after he spent the whole night there. We quite often recover babies’ bodies from pit latrines, but this was the first time the child was alive. My colleagues nicknamed the baby ‘Quarter Jack’ because they call my son ‘Half Jack’.”

For Haskins, the low points of his job are the cases involving deaths. “Especially body recoveries, which I have to do regularly. I never get used to it. Often, I have also had to inform a family of the death of a loved one. Being a bearer of bad news is never easy. Unfortunately many policemen have to deal with this kind of thing.”

Haskins has about nine years to go until retirement, which he hopes to spend doing the job he loves. I wonder what his family thinks about this. “Ask my wife,” he says, and introduces me to Vesta, a teacher-librarian at St John’s DSG.

She confirms that Haskins’ job has indeed been a sacrifice for his family. “Our children have grown up with him being available to others all the time and family life has come second. Our daily routine is always unpredictable because the demands of his job are so unpredictable. It is a very ‘non-routine’ way of life.

“We understand that people’s lives are often at stake, so it’s hard to refuse to go to help. Despite this disruptive life style, the children and I have come to accept it and are very proud of the work he does. He has been a great role model and in fact our son Jack Junior is about to qualify as a paramedic, while our daughter Sami teasingly calls him ‘Chuck Norris’. Jack really enjoys his job. Actually, it’s not a job for him, it’s what he enjoys doing most, and it’s his life. He gets bored at home and I don’t know what I’ll do with him when he retires.”

Jack Haskins’s dogs

Jack Haskins’ current Search and Rescue (S&R) dog is Udaine, a Malinois (a breed of Belgian Shepherd). They have worked together since 2006. “He is trained to use his sense of smell to locate missing people, whether they are dead or alive. We help with drownings, disaster scenes, missing hikers, suspected murder scenes or scenes where tracking is needed. Udaine’s brother, Uli, works in S&R in Durban.”

Since 2007, Haskins has also had Butch, a black Labrador cross pointer, the only biological dog in the province. He is trained to detect body fluids (blood and semen) at crime scenes such as murder and rape, even if the crime scene has been cleaned. “We help forensic teams by narrowing the search to an area as small as within a radius of 10 centimetres. The body fluids he locates can be tested for DNA that can link a suspect to a crime scene or a victim to a crime scene. Even if the crime scene has been cleaned, blood gets into areas such as the grouting between tiles or skirting boards, under flooring, into clothing seams or furnishings, etc. With his keen sense of smell, Butch is able to pick up the scent. He was even able to find traces of blood at a scene which was already four years old, where a murder had allegedly been committed and the body had never been found. The house had even been retiled, but he found evidence of body fluid at the bottom of a cupboard where it had seeped into the wood.

“A Search and Rescue dog needs to be non-aggressive as most of the work involves moving freely among people and searching for missing people. It is important that our dogs are not fighters, as we sometimes have to use more than one dog at a search scene, and we also come into contact with other dogs. I have only worked with male dogs, but the SAPS uses both females and males.”

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