PARKERSBURG - The newest member of the Alpha Natural Resources family is Ginny, a 2-year-old Dutch shepherd trained for underground search and rescue.
Born and bred in Lewisburg, W.Va., Ginny may be the first dog trained for this type of work in underground and surface mines, its handler said.
"The company has truly embraced her as an Alpha employee," said Rick McAllister, a Parkersburg native and Alpha's director of continuous improvement. "They have adopted her like a fire department adopts a dalmatian. Ginny is a very good ambassador for the coal industry."
Rick McAllister, with Alpha Natural Resources, is the handler of Ginny, the company’s underground search and rescue dog. (Photo Provided)
McAllister is Ginny's handler and travels with the dog to conferences and events. He has undergone intensive training with Ginny since it was puppy.
Training a search and rescue dog specifically for mines was McAllister's idea.
"The thought came to me several years ago, on my hour-long commute from work. I drove by a search and rescue team training in an open field, and immediately the thought came to me," he said. "Why don't we train a dog to work underground this could absolutely work."
McAllister pitched the idea to Alpha, a leading coal producer in the United States, and several months later, Ginny was welcomed into the company.
"As far as I know, this had never been tried before," he said. "It was a new concept, involving very rigorous training and a lot of new technologies."
Ginny, a work-oriented but sociable dog, was purchased from Logan Haus Kennel, which breeds working dogs for law enforcement, homeland security and field teams around the country. Trainer and canine behaviorist Bill Dotson began working with both McAllister and Ginny several months later.
"We train underground and in very dark, enclosed buildings, which mimic surface mines. Ginny is trained to seek out missing, trapped or injured humans in these unstable environments underground," said McAllister. "But we protect her like one of our own. She is equipped with the latest technologies, some designed for her alone."
Outfitted with a state-of-the-art protective vest and equipped with an atmospheric gas detector and infrared camera, Ginny is able to canvass large areas in a short amount of time, while being alerted to dangers such as toxic gases.
"Fortunately, Ginny has not been needed in a real emergency situation yet, and we hope it stays that way," said McAllister. "If Ginny retires without ever having been sent into a mine, this project will still have been a success. Mine rescue is a brotherhood, and if our search and rescue teams respond to a disaster, Ginny will be alongside them."
"She may be the first rescue dog of this kind, but I don't think Ginny will be the last," he said. "Our focus has always been on safety and watching out for each other, and Ginny has been a vital part of that."