A pair of heroes

Paula Chambers’ partner is one like no other.

Her partner has four legs, a furry body and is an Australian Shepherd named Madison. On vacations, weekends and holidays, they’re together doing one thing: Training.

Chambers and her Australian Shepherd, Madison, are part of a volunteer search and rescue team that works to find missing people, both dead and living.

A native of Forest, Chambers has lived mainly in Atlanta, GA, since graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1985, and dedicates her time and energy to various police departments during events ranging from Hurricane Katrina to an explosion at a Georgia refinery that trapped workers inside the rubble to the May 2009 search for Georgia Professor George Zinkhan, who committed suicide after he murdered three people.

Without payment or any reimbursement, Chambers, as a member of two different search and rescue teams, is called in by law enforcement to fill a need they cannot, due to limited funding. Chambers, a team leader who also works full time at an engineering firm, is a member of Alpha Team K9 Search and Rescue Inc., which mostly covers northern Georgia, and the State Urban Search and Rescue Team, or SUSAR. Additionally, she has worked with the Georgia Body Recovery Team.

“I’m just a firefighter who happens to be a dog handler who happens to be EMS,” Chambers said. “It’s training we hope we never have to use, because we hope no one has to get lost.”

As a searcher, Chambers has another Australian Shepherd besides Madison, 8, named Billy, who is 20-months-old and close to becoming a certified cadaver searcher. Madison, who started searching at eight months, is certified in live rescues and cadavers.

Chambers said there are three levels of dog certification, cadaver dogs, used in cases including drownings and when the person is believed to be dead, like Zinkhan, area search dogs, the most common, where they search for live people or cadavers, as the person could be either live or dead. The third classification is for the trailing dog, where they track the missing person based on scent. Best used in the first 24 hours, the most descriptive way to think of this classification is with bloodhounds searching for prisoners, or other situations when they know the person's last point, estimated direction of travel and have a specific scent to trace.

With the Zinkhan case, Madison let volunteers to the UGA marketing professor's body, which "was purposely concealed in a manner that was designed not to be found for a significant amount of time, if ever," according to Athens-Clarke County Police Chief Jack Lumpkin during a press conference. More than 1,100 acres had been searched prior to the discovery, which also yielded two weapons used in the triple homicide.

Zinkhan, 57, who killed three people, including his wife, dug his own grave and covered himself with debris before shooting a single bullet into his head. His body was found about a mile away from where his red Jeep Liberty was discovered.

The dogs are trained by games similar to hide-and-seek, where they seek out a specific person and are rewarded for finding them. Chambers adds that the dogs are taught to be very social and personable and are taught to be very dedicated to the job.

Even if the person is not found alive, there are benefits to finding them, Chambers said.

"There is nothing better than finding someone when they're still alive, bring them home to their family, or at least bringing them home for closure," Chambers said. "Now that question is answered."

Although the work is based on volunteers, Chambers said it is very physically and mentally demanding and it requires a high degree of professionalism.

"They only reason they call us back is because we do a good job. We're just as professional as anyone else, we just don't get paid for it," Chambers said, adding that one type of case does get to her.

"It takes emotional stamina to see a deceased person, but the ones that bother us the most are the ones we can't find," Chambers said. "You just have to become accustomed to the type of things you're getting into."

In 2000, Chambers, who has had dogs her entire life, said she enjoyed working and training them, as well as participating in community service, and decided become a volunteer searcher as a good way to combine the two. It was then that she became interested in rescue dogs.

"I thought it was pretty darn interesting for me to train to go out and help other people," said Chambers, who has been to West Virginia, Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and Louisiana as a searcher. "It's an honor to be part of a community that serves and assists."

Despite the juggle between searching and her full-time job, Chambers remains positive about her busy life, adding that her boss is "fairly lenient with me" on live, or time-sensitive, cases.

"We work a real job so we can go out and do passion jobs, which is search and rescue," Chambers said.

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