Airport K-9 teams split duties away from Tucson terminal

KOLD TIA K-9 team

TUCSON, AZ (KOLD News 13) - The K-9 teams that can be seen securing the Tucson International Airport routinely respond to calls far from the airport without most of us ever knowing about it.

Lead K-9 Officer for Tucson Airport Authority Police Jason Ryan won't disclose exactly how many threats they've detected, but he assures the public that these teams have it under control.

"We stay busy," he said with a grin. "We stay busy."

Between the baggage checks, the plane sweeps and parking lot patrols, the three dogs and their handlers make up more than half of the Regional Bomb Squad's K-9 unit. They're called into situations that require thorough searches, like recovering lost/missing firearms or checking major events for suspicious items before opening to the public.

Ryan said it's not well-known and they're okay working without much recognition.

"We don't do this for the reason that the public needs to know about it," he said. "We do it so that when they come through this airport, they go to the U of A stadium, they go anywhere in town to an event... that they're going to be secure."

Last fall, the K-9 unit helped to secure Kino Sports Complex ahead of the Mexican Baseball Fiesta. A loaded handgun was found during a sweep of the facility and cars parked around the venue.

Ryan said no rational person would go searching for explosives, but the dogs simply focus on the mission. He considers his dog, Alex, a partner, friend and member of the family.

“The dogs do that for the sheer joy of making the handlers happy,” he said. “There’s no better partner that you could ask for.”

Regional Bomb Squad Supervisor Sgt. Jason Rockwell said the animals are not put into situations where there is a known threat. Once that’s confirmed, they’re pulled out to avoid risking injury or worse for a fellow officer.

"The dog's not just some piece of equipment that at the end of the shift, they can go home and hang in the closet or put in a shed," said Rockwell. "This is something that lives with them all them time. They have to deal with it and feed it, take care of it."

The K-9 handlers are required to meet once a week to train. The technicians, who are also part of the Regional Bomb Squad, are technically required to train once every two weeks. Both tend to train more than the minimum, according to Rockwell. He said the K-9 teams typically train 'off-the-clock' at home as well.

The unit recently received a commendation from the Pima County Sheriff's Department.

While some have speculated that K-9 teams like this could be rendered unnecessary because of advancements in technology, Ryan said he's doubtful it'll ever reach that point.

“I don’t think they’ll be able to do it,” said Ryan. “They spend a lot of money trying to find that technology to do it, but yet we still have these dogs at the airports.”

The unit was established at TUS roughly 15 years ago. Ryan said they’ve successfully met all accreditation requirements every year.

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