Iraq Country Canine Program Manager
“It's through failure that you're gonna learn ...”
Why they're a Crisis Leader:
I can easily make the case that meeting David 25 years ago set me on a path of successes that I still enjoy to this day.
When I started exploring Search & Rescue (SAR) teams back in the 1990s, I had the opportunity to join a team that would let me attend searches with my dog right away. I also had the opportunity to join a team that would require me to first train under the strict guidance of an authentic, widely-respected, no-nonsense, task-master named David Brownell.
I chose the latter, obviously. What I learned from David formed the foundation of what has become, for me, an unbelievable and humbling career in response, emergency management, and crisis leadership.
David has traveled on a diverse journey, as well. In our interview, he highlights a couple of examples of his leadership, but his humility - and some OPSEC (operational security) - puts some of his other leadership experience left unsaid.
From his official bio:
"... Senior Canine Trainer and Canine Program Manager ... 35-year background in search and detector dog team handling, safety, training, and management; he has organized canine programs for police departments, volunteer SAR groups, and corporate security ... knowledgeable in a wide array of canine detection fields to include narcotics, explosives, IEDs, patrol, human remains, SAR/Disaster, and missing/lost persons ... has worked over 13 years as a canine program manager and senior trainer for international security in Iraq and the Middle East ... organized and trained hundreds of personnel and detector canines and assisted in staffing and managing numerous canine projects to include the US Embassy in Baghdad, the Baghdad International Airport, and several commercial oil exploration projects in Iraq and Kurdistan...."
Besides our interview, one needs only to ask others that have ever met or worked with or for David about their experiences with him. His reputation as an authentic, no-nonsense, task-master remains highly respected after all these years.
David’s consistent role in doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons makes him the best kind of crisis leader.
And his lessons continue to create a legacy for those of us to follow.
#1 "What is a Crisis Leader?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "What is a Crisis Leader?"
Okay, what is a crisis leader? I think that's a good question.
I think it can be a lot of different things.
I think a crisis leader is somebody that has both the knowledge and the skills, the ability and the willingness to take action when there's some type of crisis.
A crisis can be something big, it can be a natural disaster, it can be a mass shooting, it can be a local search that you don't know, or it can be somethin' that you can be crisis leader as a member of your family.
The North Texas area, we get a lot of tornadoes and severe weather, and it might be where you're the leader of the family, and you're taking to action to keep your family safe, or it can be something in your job, but you have the willingness and the knowledge and the ability to take the appropriate action when needed.
It can be a big incident, or it can be a small incident, but I think you take action when action is needed, and you have the training, either formal or informally, to know what to do and you take it at the proper time.
#2 "What's an example when you relied on your own Crisis Leadership?"
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An example where I relied on my own crisis leadership, a couple come to mind.
I think early on in my career, I originally joined the military in 1981. I became a military police officer.
I had just gotten out of basic training and I was assigned to my first duty station and my partner as I were doing an evening time routine patrol of one of the military housing areas and we had just entered the housing area.
We were coming driving through the housing area and we noticed that two vehicles were kind of driving erratic and pulled off the side of the street and one of the vehicles pulled alongside the other and fired a gunshot into the driver's window and we were probably, maybe 40, 50 yards from this when it happened.
We witnessed it.
So we didn't know at the time what was going on.
We heard the loud gunshot.
We didn't know it was a gunshot at the time. So the suspect vehicle ended up speeding away.
So we approached the driver that had been shot and my partner went around to the passenger's side. I went around to the driver's side and noticed that the driver had been shot through the left front shoulder and so I immediately applied a pressure dressing and we called for backup to seal off the housing area.
Called in backup.
They said there was only one way in and one way out of the housing area. So we sealed off the housing area, waited for backup and waited for the ambulance and once the backup had arrived and the ambulance had arrived and had taken over treatment of the wounded soldier, I was able to get a complete description of the vehicle and a license plate and once the backup units arrived, we started going door to door through the housing area looking for the suspect vehicle.
After about a two hour search, my partner and I noticed a garage door to one of the housing units that was only shut about halfway, so we looked inside the garage and we noticed that the vehicle matching the suspect's vehicle description was in the garage so we backed off, called in for backup.
They surrounded the house and sealed off the house and they were able to make the arrest of the suspect.
So I think that's part of... That kinda started my career in emergency management and response. And it's just applying what I had learned in basic training at the time.
And it just goes back to, when something happens whatever you do, your reactions have to be secondary.
You can't really think about it.
Just you have to be able to react and know what to do and when to do it. And so that's one incident comes to mind.
Another incident was in 2003, in February of 2003, I was with the Texas Task Force 1 FEMA USAR team, working a FEMA dog, and I was also part of a local search and rescue team, Search One Rescue in the Dallas area.
In February 2003, the shuttle crashed and broke apart over North Texas and so we were called, the Texas Task Force 1 along with multiple teams throughout the state of Texas and nationally, probably thousands of responders were asked to go to West, or excuse me, to East Texas to look for the shuttle that had broken apart.
But also, more importantly, they were looking for the remains of the astronaut.
We deployed to East Texas for 10 days as part of the task force and I was tasked as part of a response, we call it the Black Hawk Brigade, to East Texas.
We were assigned to... It was three or four of the dogs that were responded or tasked to look for the remains. And basically what we did, is we were tasked to Black Hawks and we'd go up in the air and the, the FBI and the local aviation assets would go up and mark with GPS where they saw buzzards circling and so we'd deploy in the Black Hawks.
We set down the GPS coordinates with the dogs and we'd fan out in probably about a half a mile to a one mile radius with the HRD dogs looking for the remains of the astronauts but also looking for parts of the shuttle because there was certain things that they were interested in recovering besides the astronauts. And so I was tasked to a small team of three or four dogs over these 10 days and some of my team members.
This was their first basic really massive type search and so I think the crisis leadership was just helping fellow team members that hadn't really experienced this kinda search and what to do and what not to do and basically how to handle the day to day search, not only from a tactical operations aspect, but also just on a daily basis.
And I remember our task force leader was retired military and so one of the things that he was stickle on is clean uniforms. And I joked with my team members about... We were working 12 or 14 hour days and I remember talking to my team member when we got to the hotel.
We were tried, we were wet, we were muddy.
And I remember telling him, I said, okay, first thing we're gonna do before we go to bed is we're gonna get our uniform ready for the next day, make sure we've got a clean uniform and we're gonna polish our boots.
We were way knee deep in mud every day and as dumb as it seemed is that appearance because this was a nationally televised events.
That professional image and appearance was critical.
So everyday when we showed up to search besides knowing what tactically and operationally to do, that professional image of wearing a clean uniform with shined boots because that image is important, not only to the media and to our task force but to how other people see you and view you as a professional.
If you come in looking like a dirt bag and you're wearing the same uniform every day, even though you're dirt tired, at the end of the day, you don't get a second chance to make that first impression.
And so I think that's just the very minute but it's the little things, I think often that make the biggest impression. Not necessarily the big actions that you do.
So I think just imparting the importance of that and it goes back to my military training. That's what I was ingrained upon me in military is that image and it's... If you don't pay attention to the little details, you're not gonna pay attention to the big details.
#3 "What do you know now that you wish you knew then?"
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What do I wish I know now, know now that you wish you knew then?
[sighs] I think a lot of things.
I think one of the big things, the take away that I've learned over the years. I spent the last three year, 13 years working in Iraq as a civilian contractor, as both a handler or a trainer or project and program manager. I think it all ties in together from what I learned from going through basic training as a private through my, almost, 19 years with a local search and rescue team.
Started in the K9 program, and then going on to civilian contracting.
It all ties in together for the emergency management.
The lessons that you learn from the very smallest search to the largest search are the same. But I think the key thing is never quite learning. You've always got to continue learning in your education, no longer how long you've been in it. Or even if you go into a different aspect of the emergency management.
With the lessons that I learned as part of the Texas Task Force One, and in with Search One Rescue, I applied, when I first started working in Iraq, I first started working in Iraq in October 2003, and a lot of just the preparation things that I learned from the task force, you know, check your gear, or make sure it's serviceable.
Same thing in the military, you know, the saying "One is none." So make sure you've got redundant systems.
I applied that with what I did in Iraq.
Always making sure you're accountable for your people. Make sure you know where your people are.
I applied those lessons, you know, when I was with the task force, when we were on searches, but also on when I was with the local search team, we were on searches.
And I apply it til this day.
In Iraq, you know, I can remember some of the searches that I went on, when I first started work in Iraq, some of the Knock and Cordon searches that I went on, making sure my gear was ready, making sure I had backup comms, make sure I had backup radios, make sure I had redundant first aid kits, make sure everybody on the mission knew what they were doing, and where they were going. What's the rally point if you run into problems?
So I think it's realizing that everything you do in your emergency management service career, whether you're first starting it, or whether you've been here for 40 years, is you're continuing learning those lessons.
But always continue learning, and don't ever forget the lessons you learned 30-40 years ago. Always continue learning and striving to be better.
And make yourself, not only better, but your team better, because if one member of the team fails, your team can fail. You're only as strong as your weakest link.
You've gotta have everybody on the team. And I think one of the things that the task force system in the military is good at, is teaching the newest member should be able to step into the position above him, and be able to fulfill those capabilities. So, cause if you've only got one person that you're relying upon, what happens if that person is taken out of service, or can't make the mission, you've gotta have people that can, that are capable, but also willing to step up and fulfill that position.
So you gotta have redundant personnel systems, too. And to rely on it.
But I think it goes back to is never stop learning. You've always got to be continuing improving yourself, and don't rely on what you did yesterday, because technology changes, and it improves our response capability.
Technology's a great tool, but one caution I would give as an example, is everybody's relying upon GPS nowadays, well, don't forget your map and compass. That's the core skills. Don't rely upon your cellphone GPS, cause what happens if that goes down, or if you're in an area where you don't have cellphone signal. Or what happens if you're in deep east Texas woods, and you don't have GPS signal? Pull out old school, don't forget old school with map and compass.
You know, old school is there for a reason. And don't become too reliant upon technology to solve all your problems.
You gotta go through old school ways sometimes.
#4 "What advice would you give someone who wants to improve their own Crisis Leadership?"
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What advice would I give someone who wants to improve their own crisis leadership?
I think it goes back to education and skills training, continually strive and improve your own experience and education and training.
And also too, is don't be afraid to reach out and network with other experienced people. I think, in any discipline, you need a mentor. Find a strong mentor to take you under their wings and give you guidance.
Reach out to as many people as you can.
I remember when I first got into search and rescue, I would attend a lot of national canine seminars and with a purpose of furthering my education but also networking and I met a lot of great, experienced people over the years.
You share ideas, techniques and methods because what works for us in Texas may not necessarily work for somebody in Colorado but there's something that they can do. Or even though I don't do avalanche training here in Texas, there's probably techniques and training that they're doing in avalanche training that I can apply and alter and adapt.
So I think continually network and improve your skills and education and just don't be afraid to fail.
I think sometimes, especially in the canine's world, we get afraid to go out there and fail.
But to me, if you're not failing, if you're always going out and you're setting up training where you're not pushing your own boundaries, you're not learning.
It's through failure that you're gonna learn.
If you're always succeeding, you're not necessarily learning a lot and you're not expanding your comfort zone. You gotta get out there and expand your comfort zone and I think some of the best lessons that I've learned over the years is through my failures. And it's through the failures that I've learned to become better.
But don't be afraid to fail and there's nothing wrong with failure.
The only thing wrong with failure is if you let it keep you from trying to improve or if it keeps you from going out there and challenging yourself because you're afraid to look foolish in other people.
Most everybody that's been in any kind of emergency management response capability has had failures and it's through our failures that I think that we learn some of our greatest lessons.
So don't be afraid to fail.
#5 "Who is a Crisis Leader that influenced your career?"
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Who is a crisis leader that influenced my career? I can think of two people coming into mind.
One of the first ones is my friend, and I call him my personal mentor, Dr. Mark Marsolais.
I met Mark Marsolais when he was a sergeant with the Houston Police K9 and he was in charge of their patrol division K9, and he came up to the Dallas area and we met through some friends of mine and Mark's we had in common, and Mark wanted to expand the patrol capabilities of their K9s to human remains, and so my friend Kevin Henry put Mark in touch with me, and Mark was an experienced police officer K9 SWAT sergeant and had a lot of experience.
But he really I think influenced my career because, number one is he had some of the strongest ethics and morals of anybody that I've been experienced with, and I think your ethics and your morals and your standards are extremely important in these industries, especially in the K9 field.
There's a lot of people that do unethical things, or things that really shouldn't be going on in the field, especially in the field of K9, and he influenced me just by leading by example.
It goes back to the military adage that you lead by example, and he always leads by example, and he wasn't afraid, even though he was a sergeant with a lot of experience to come up to expand his knowledge base, and the sergeant that came with him was an experienced police K9 trainer with probably 30 years of experience, but they both came up with the desire to learn a new area.
And especially, I was a civilian, I was in police K9, and they weren't afraid to sit down with somebody that was a police K9 trainer and listen to what they had to say.
So he had, and still does to this day, have a strong influence on my career and what I've done, both as a friend, but also as a mentor, and he's led by example.
And the other I would say was Mike McKenna.
I met Mike when I was with the local search and rescue team. He was a green dog and/or a young pup, I would say, and I continually challenged Mike.
And when I first met Mike, I would basically, I was kind of standoffish and I would make him show me that he was serious about learning, and he was, and he proved himself.
And he's gone on to probably do more with a HRD dog than I have ever done in my career.
He's had more finds than I ever did, and I take a lot of pride in that, and as an instructor, I always want my students, and I think an instructor and a teacher, we want our students to go on and be better, and to do more than we've ever done, and he has done that, and he continues to do that today, so I take a lot of pride in the fact that I had a small part in his career development.
I watched him over the past 20 years as a friend go on to mentor other people, and what I call pay it forward, and I think in our industry, this is critical, paying it forward.
I spent time showing him and teaching what I know, and he's gone on to carry that forward with what he does today, with not only doing it at a task force level, but he's done it in his professional life, and I take a lot of pride in doing that.