KINGSTON, R.I. – September 14, 2009 – Along with her German shepherd Maxwell, University of Rhode Island Police Sgt. Erica Vieira is a member of two search dog teams.
Most days, she works with Maxwell in the woods, in swamps, at ponds and lakes, at obstacle courses and in buildings. This physical work, including outdoor wintertime drills, is preparation for the day when the University or the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency needs Vieira’s skill with Maxwell in emergency searches.
That regimen would be enough to tax even those in great shape, but Vieira does all of this volunteer work after finishing her normal 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift on the URI police force.
Her search and rescue work and other volunteer commitments are the reasons why the Richmond Grange named her its 2009 Police Officer of the Year. The Rhode Island Senate issued a citation on the occasion of that honor.
Named the first sergeant in the history of the URI Campus Police Department in November 2008, Vieira and Maxwell have trained at Disaster City®, in College Station, Texas, a 52-acre mock community that can simulate various levels of disaster. They’ve also been to the American Rescue Dog Association training facility in Quantico, Va. for air-scenting training. Maxwell is a certified American Rescue Dog. Maxwell and Vieira are members of the International Police Work Dog Association. And just a few weeks ago, Vieira and Maxwell completed a 9-hour certification test with Master Trainer Matthew Zarrella, a corporal with the Rhode Island State Police. The duo is now certified by the International Police Work Dog Association as a Type 3 disaster response team for Rhode Island.
But how does Vieira fit all of that into a life that includes other volunteer commitments, a demanding full-time job, and family life with her husband Dan?
“I really love my job and all that goes with it,” she said one morning after completing her police shift.
URI Police Major Stephen Baker said he is impressed with Vieira’s level of commitment.
“Sgt. Vieira has certainly made a positive impact on the URI Police Department and the University community,” he said. “She continues to represent the ideals of community policing and teamwork.”
Vieira’s even managed to wrangle her contractor husband into doing some work to aid R.I. Task Force One’s rescue dog training in Rhode Island. “At the Wickford State Police Barracks, all of the agility equipment (for the dogs) was falling down,” Vieira said. “So my husband built a new facility with seven towers that connect like buildings. And recently, he built a confined space box to train the dogs on how to navigate through areas that they normally would not know how to navigate through. He volunteered all his time, and the materials were donated.”
A member of the URI Police Department since 1988, Vieria also brings Maxwell to elementary schools and classes at URI so young people understand what they should do when they get lost.
“The first rule is stay where you are,” Vieira said. “We will find you.”
She said Maxwell is a “peach” with the kids during the classroom meet and greets. “He has achieved canine good citizenship status,” Vieira said.
“Now, I am working on developing a program for URI101 classes about how students can take care of themselves if they get lost in the wilderness, particularly in the winter when there is an increased risk of hypothermia and frostbite,” Vieira said.
The Rhode Island Special Olympics has also honored Vieira for having raised more than $7,000 for the annual torch run. In fact, the URI Campus Police Department has achieved the Emerald Level of Excellence from Special Olympics thanks to Vieira’s 15 years of involvement.
Vieira said she has received excellent support from URI students, especially fraternities like Tau Epsilon Pi, which has been a major participant in the annual Torch Run Plunge to support the torch run.
“I really enjoy the URI students, and for the most part they are respectful,” Vieria said.
She helps out with students who intern at the department. “Some are interested in law enforcement careers, while others are interested in becoming lawyers and they want to see how a police department works. You can’t help but become friendly with such committed students.”
She has also put in time outside her regular department shift to win two grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A $92,000 grant provided officers with digital radios, which provide greater security and better access to other law enforcement agencies. A $100,000 grant allowed the department to purchase computers for University cruisers.
“The computers help take some of the responsibility off the dispatchers for running records checks,” Vieira said. “Plus, the computer allows the dispatcher to see that we are responding to a call and running a records check. The two grants are all about the officers’ safety.”
RESCUE TEAM: University of Rhode Island Police Sgt. Erica Vieira and her certified rescue dog, Maxwell, pause for a photo at a URI police cruiser. URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Michael Salerno Photography.