“The SWAT cars have pepper spray grenades that could cover the entire field in pepper spray! This ENTIRE field!” exclaims 10-year-old Nick Jesso, who attends St. Bernard School. Note to self: when you ask a group of 9- to 12-year-old kids what they enjoy about a five-day Public Safety Camp where they get to see planes set on fire, have a bike rodeo, wear hazmat equipment, operate a fire hose and watch a car get torn apart by the jaws of life, they nearly stampede you in their enthusiasm to tell you how much fun they are having.
…and it was only Day 2. Mt. Lebanon’s Public Safety Camp began on Monday and runs through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon each day, and Tuesday’s lineup included meeting Mt. Lebanon’s K-9 officer, CPR and First Aid training and watching a Lifeflight helicopter land in the parking lot next to Wildcat Field.
“The camp started five years ago. It brings together Mt. Lebanon’s three agencies—police, fire and medical rescue—to do something fun for the kids in the area and show how we all work together,” says Corporal James Hughes, who was the police department’s main organizer. The PD worked with the fire department, MRTSA, the Recreation Department, Steel City Towing, Allegheny County airport firefighters, Lifeflight and other agencies to put together a lineup for the week.
Tuesday began with the kids meeting Snieper, Mt. Lebanon’s K-9 officer, and he put on quite a show for his young admirers. First he sniffed out a bag of narcotics hidden behind the wheel of the police car by his handler, Officer Ben Himan. Then, behind Snieper’s back, one of the campers was given a set of keys and told to drop them in the middle of the field. Snieper then showed off his tracking abilities by barreling directly toward the spot where the keys were dropped.
Snieper’s grand finale was a demonstration of how he helps Officer Himan apprehend criminals. MRTSA volunteer Matt Coleman graciously donned a bite suit (to which one of the campers exclaimed “The suit makes him look like a big fat goalie without any protection!”) and then, when Officer Himan told him to stand down, he ran in the opposite direction. This indicated to Snieper that it was time for him to get involved, so he ran at Coleman and bit down on his right arm, without letting go until Officer Himan gave the command. Click below to watch a video of the demonstration.
“It’s great when the community gets to see our K-9 officer and learn what he does for the community,” says Officer Himan. “For Snieper, everything we do is like a fun game…but it’s tough because, yes, he is a dog, but he’s here to protect you and the rest of the community.” (Scroll to the bottom for fun facts about Snieper)
The kids got a chance to pet Snieper before they moved on to CPR and first aid training. MRTSA workers and volunteers spent an hour with the campers, teaching them how to administer the Heimlich maneuver, CPR, wrap bandages, splint a broken bone and more.
The final event for the day, the Lifeflight helicopter landing next to Wildcat Field, was cancelled. The event has been rescheduled for Wednesday, making it the final activity after the foam extravaganza and a firefighting simulation where the kids wear fire gear and operate a fire hose. But there is always the chance that it could be cancelled again: What makes Public Safety Camp so cool is the fact that kids get to work with our public safety officers and their equipment, but if a real emergency happens, the fun of the Safety Camp needs to be put on hold so that our officers can handle the situation.
While the cancellation was a slight disappointment for the kids, it did not quell their enthusiasm. “This is the best camp I ever went to,” says Dominic Rocco, a nine-year-old homeschooler from Dormont.
“I like this camp because you get up close with the people who protect and serve you every day,” says Brendan Yager, a 12-year-old who goes to Keystone Oaks. Brendan aspires to become a photographer when he grows up, so he brings his Cannon SX530 Powershot with him to camp every day. There he has the rare opportunity to get close-up photos of the safety vehicles and equipment.
Corporal Michael Smakosz, who recently transitioned into the Crime Prevention unit and will be organizing the camp for the PD next year, agrees with Yager. “This camp teaches the kids to think about safety first, and it enforces for them that we are approachable and we’re here to help if they are having a problem. Younger kids are taught about ‘stranger danger,’ but there are certain strangers, such as strangers in uniforms, who should be trusted … and I think it is important to reinforce that for them.”
Fun facts about Snieper and Officer Himan
- Snieper is Belgian Malinois, and he was born in Holland.
- Snieper is is the Dutch spelling for the word “Sniper.” Snieper’s breeder visited America and fell in love with the dog name, but he spelled it the Dutch way when Snieper was born.
- He is Mt. Lebanon’s only K-9 officer, and the department acquired him in 2013 after the passing of Sundi, who served until 2012.
- He is four years old, but his training began when he was just a puppy. First, he was trained in Holland before coming to Pennsylvania to be trained with Officer Himan in a six-week program at Shallow Creek Kennels in Sharpsville.
- Snieper is Himan’s partner, so Snieper accompanies with him on every shift. Then, Snieper goes home with Himan at the end of the day, where he unwinds and becomes more like your average dog who enjoys cuddling on the couch.
- Himan wanted to be a police officer and K-9 handler from the time he was a kid. He has been a police officer for 14 years, but it was not until he began working for Mt. Lebanon that he was chosen to be a K-9 handler—Snieper is his first K-9 partner.
- Snieper is certified through the Pennsylvania Police Work Dog Association and the North American Police Work Dog Association to perform narcotics detection, article searches, tracking and criminal apprehension. He works with Himan to complete a minimum of 16 hours of training per month to keep his skills sharp.
- He is very social for a police dog. He enjoys being around people and being petted. If you see Snieper and Officer Himan out on patrol, you can ask Himan if it’s OK to pet Snieper. Unless he is focused on an immediate task, Himan will probably permit you to say hello to Snieper.
- Himan’s twin brother is a sheriff in Ohio…and he is also a K-9 handler.
- Snieper has a GoPro. Keep an eye out for footage from the Snieper cam on the Mt. Lebanon Police Department Facebook page.
- Snieper is funded primarily through donations to the police department. Right now, the department is selling Snieper T-shirts at $15 each (and they are completely adorable) to help pay for his equipment and training. You can purchase one by calling the records office at (412)343-4143.