K-9 lifeguards watch over coastline thanks to woman’s passion

K-9 lifeguards watch over coastline thanks to woman’s passion
Rummy hits the surf to practice a rescue. Rummy is part of a K-9 lifeguard rescue team created by lifeguard Niki Burgan. Photo by Jared Whitlock

COASTAL CITIES — Last July, a young boy was riding on a jetski near the Oceanside Harbor when he was thrown off the watercraft.  

His family watched helplessly as big surf threatened to slam him into a rock pile. The clock was ticking. A boat rescue was too risky, but a special lifeguard dog was on hand.Rummy, an 8-year-old Labrador retriever, hopped in the rough water and swam toward the boy with a long rescue tube. Panic stricken with minor cuts, the boy calmed down when Rummy reached him. The boy clung onto Rummy’s custom lifeguard jacket and the dog pulled him to a boat operated by Niki Burgan, an American Red Cross Lifeguard Instructor and Rummy’s handler. Rummy still wasn’t finished. The dog headed for the jetski and hooked it with the rescue tube, allowing Burgan to haul the watercraft in.

Lifeguard Niki Burgan and Rummy, a Labrador retriever who’s certified to assist lifeguards in search-and-rescue-missions. Photo by Jared Whitlock

Burgan created the SoCal H2O Rescue Team, the U.S.’s first K-9 lifeguard team, in 2009, and Rummy has been making rescues since. While the SoCal H20 Rescue Team has saved lives, it was born from tragedy.

Burgan’s mother, sister and stepfather died in a small-plane crash off of Carlsbad’s coastline in 2007.

“The state had minimal resources to recover their bodies with all the budget cuts,” Burgan said.

Fishermen recovered her mother and sister’s bodies. Her stepfather’s body was never found. Consequently, Burgan believes specially trained search-and-rescue dogs could have made the difference in locating his body. Burgan knew she had to do something.

“I really thought that there’s got to be a better way to do this,” said Burgan, who volunteered to train her dogs. “Dogs are cost effective and have abilities people don’t. The idea wasn’t to take lifeguard’s jobs. It was to give them another resource.”

Due to Burgan’s passionate efforts, The California Department of Parks and Recreation and local governments backed Burgan’s plan for a nonprofit K-9 lifeguard team, which currently includes Burgan, other lifeguards, Rummy and two other dogs.

“Our number of dogs hasn’t expanded over the years, but what we’re asked to do has greatly expanded,” Burgan said.

The SoCal H2O Rescue Team is primarily known for aquatic rescues. But they’re also trained to help on land. Last September, for example, Burgan and Rummy helped find a missing child in San Bernardino as part of a statewide search.

As for the coast, Rummy regularly finds missing children at local beaches. Not to mention, in the event of a bluff or seawall collapse, Rummy and the other dogs are trained to search through the rubble for victims.

The dogs are trained at various beaches throughout North County two or three times a week for several hours each session. One exercise simulates ocean rescues. For example, while Rummy is told to wait on the beach, a lifeguard floats beyond where the waves are breaking and waves his or her arms. Then Rummy is given the green light. With a rescue tube attached his lifeguard jacket, he punches through the surf and pulls the lifeguard in, even in waves as large as 10 feet — a testament to Rummy’s swimming ability and understanding of rip currents.

“We do it at beaches with plenty of distractions to recreate the real thing,” Burgan said. “It keeps him sharp.”

When not at the beach, to further develop Rummy’s keen sense of smell, Burgan will plant different scents on complicated trails and have Rummy track each one. Going forward, Bergen wants to train Rummy and the other dogs to detect and stop human trafficking groups that are arriving on San Diego beaches.

The SoCal H2O Rescue Team relies on private and corporate donations. Additionally, it’s received a lot of fanfare since its inception. The team was at the 2011 Encinitas Holiday Parade, a TV show may be in the works and Rummy is a nominee in the American Humane Association’s 2012 Hero Dog Awards.

“We’ve gotten a really good response,” Burgan said. “I owe it all to that fact that I always think my mom and dad are watching over me.”

Visit socalh2orescueteam.com to donate or for more information.

This story has been changed since its original posting. It was incorrectly reported that Niki Burgan’s dog Rummy is the only National Association for Search and Rescue certified dog in California. Rummy is not NASAR certified. Further, there are more than 145 NASAR certified canine teams trained in various disciplines in California. The Coast News regrets the error.



Filed Under: Rancho Santa Fe Lead Story


RSSComments (12)

Leave a Reply | Trackback URL

  1. Kimberly R. Kelly says:


    I wish this article had been more clearly fact checked. It is easy enough to do.

    While I support the use of canines for rescue work, particularly as I have been a search and rescue specialist for over 18 years – including ocean dive recovery for human remains – I have several major concerns about this program and the claims it is making.

    First, according to Ms. Burgan’s website, SoCal H20 Rescue Team is a non-profit 501c3 organization. It also has a Paypal link on every page, soliciting donations. According to several press releases, Ms. Burgen has received multiple high profile, high value donations, including a vehicle, $1,600.00 worth of EasyTurf installation into her own personal backyard, and more. Even this article states she is relying on personal and corporate donations and financial support.

    Unfortunately State of California, IRS, and Guidestar websites, there is no easily locatable listing for any corporation, LLC, or 501c3 charity under the name “SoCal H20 Rescue Team.” So, without proof of her non-profit status, how is she able to aggressively solicit for such financial support?

    Further, as a non-profit, it would appear that her working and or training dogs in shabracks or vests with “State Park” patches (such as in multiple news and media pictures that are easily found through any search engine) blurs the separation of private, non-profit and State resources.

    Additionally, if Ms. Burgan is working as a State employee, how is it that she is also working simultaneously as a non-profit? Labor laws very clearly define that certain professions may not volunteer in the capacity of their official role.

    An accurate example – in California, since search and rescue for missing persons is to assigned to the county level, and by directive, to the Sheriff’s Department, a Sheriff’s deputy may NOT volunteer in search and rescue, but a police officer CAN, because search and rescue is not a part of their designated duties.

    Ms. Burgan is repeatedly referenced as a State Park employee, and her SoCal H20 as a non-profit, but in examples in the article above, Ms. Burgan’s dogs are being used while she is apparently on duty. Since the dogs are not a State Park asset, who is responsible for the liability and worker’s comp issues of Ms. Burgan, her dogs, and her team? If they are a non-profit, how is she wearing State Park uniforms or equipment, etc.,? If she is doing this as part of her assigned duties, how can she legally or ethically be soliciting for donations that will not be owned by the State?

    There are other red flags, aside from the employment law issues.

    Primarily, it is wholly untrue that Ms. Burgan and Rummy are the only NASAR, National Association of Search and Rescue, certified team in California.

    In fact, according to NASAR, there are 150 NASAR certified search and rescue dogs in California in disciplines ranging from water recovery, trailing, area search.

    Ms. Burgan did indeed take a course, and pass the test, for a basic entry level land search and rescue course, SARTECH II.

    In transparency, I am a NASAR member, first joining in 1995, and since then, taught at multiple NASAR conferences, class offerings (like SARTECH II), and was a SARTECH evaluator for several years. In the 1990′s until approximately 2001, that course and testing has been offered hundreds times throughout California, and the rest of the nation. One of the primary NASAR instructors and evaluators is based here in San Diego, and offers courses on a regular basis.

    For Ms. Burgan to state that she and Rummy are the only certified team in California is patently absurd.

    Additionally, the SARTECH II is an entry-level ground search course. It is NOT a canine test.

    From Ms. Burgan’s website and multiple media references dating back as far as 2010, Rummy is “in the process of NASAR certification.”

    An average search dog, starting as a puppy, takes 18 months to become proficient enough to reliably demonstrate skill mastery – an experienced handler (which is what Ms. Burgan states she is, working dogs in search work as far back as 2000), can certify a dog in significantly less time.

    Why is Rummy, an 8 year old dog, still “in the process” of certification?

    According to a review of NASAR certifications, Rummy has never certified in ANY NASAR canine courses.

    Inquiries into LETS: Law Enforcement Training Systems, CARDA: California Rescue Dog Association, SWSD: Southwest Search Dogs, WOOF: Wilderness Finders, and NASDN: North American Search Dog Network, had found zero attendance in any offered canine programs, and zero certifications by Ms. Burgan, Rummy, or her previous dog, Bivy. POL-AERIE has not tested Ms. Burgan or Rummy.

    Requests are still pending from NAPWDA: National Association of Police Working Dogs; AMPWDA: American Mantrailing Police Working Dog Association, and IPWDA: International Police Working Dog Association. Inquiries have also been sent to SUSAR and FEMA.

    According to the article above, Ms. Burgan and Rummy assisted in finding a child in San Bernardino during a statewide search in September.

    In California, search and rescue is assigned to the Sheriff’s Department. If San Bernardino, one of the largest departments with one of the largest SAR cadres, including dogs, was unable to provide enough resources to manage the search, they would have to call the State of California Emergency Management Agency (CALEMA; formerly CAL-OES, Office of Emergency Services).

    CALEMA would then activate other California Sheriff’s departments for mutual aid services and SAR deployment.

    Since SAR is not assigned to the lifeguard services, Ms. Burgan and Rummy would not have been deployed as a land SAR asset.

    If Ms. Burgan was operating under her 501c3, she and Rummy would not have been deployed, because they are not a recognized CALEMA resource, lack Sheriff’s Department affiliation, and lack disaster service worker (DSW) coverage.

    So if Ms. Burgan did indeed deploy with her dog to San Bernardino, she would have done so as a private citizen with an uncertified dog, and would not have been utilized by any authorizing agency.

    Which, in itself, self-deploying would be bad enough, however, a quick check of Ms. Burgan’s website, and her unsecured Facebook pages, show Ms. Burgan wearing a navy blue SoCal H20 Rescue Team onsie-jumpsuit, and in other photos, of a blue firefighter style pullover, both with SoCal H20 patches, generic “search and rescue” and K9 patches (easily purchased through catalogs and local Search Gear retailer), but ALSO, on her upper left arm, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Service patch (and it’s a discontinued patch, as CAL-OES is now CALEMA with a different coloring and wording). She is not an authorized CALEMA search and rescue responder, and she is not authorized to wear that patch.

    In other articles, Ms. Burgan also makes claims of being deployed to the Danielle Van Dam abduction in 2002 with her search dog Bivy, and working the Amber DuBois search with Rummy, two years ago.

    According to her website, “Niki has worked with animals and specifically, search and rescue dogs, since 2000, where she and Bivouac earned National Park Service Search & Rescue certification while working for Yosemite Search and Rescue until 2005.” – http://www.socalh2orescueteam.com/the-rescue-team.php

    Except that the National Park Service, Yosemite Search and Rescue, YOSAR, and YODOGS, do not train or certify search and rescue dogs. All dogs affiliated with responding to search missions in Yosemite are certified by outside agencies, such as CARDA, NASAR, WOOF, or similar – and all of those agencies state they have never certified Ms. Burgan as a canine handler, member, or either Rummy or Bivy. When directly called yesterday, both the Park Service and Friends of YOSAR denied ever certifying Ms. Burgan as a dog handler, or any dog in her care.

    Ms. Burgan claims to work water SAR (both live and recovery, two very different search techniques and methods), missing live people on beaches, missing live people on land, rubble and sea wall collapse, scent specific trailing work, in addition to cadaver. She would also like to begin work on human trafficking, and dope work.

    Yet she doesn’t have a single certification in any of those disciplines, it would seem.

    The same restrictions that would prevent Ms. Burgan and or an uncertified dog from responding to a CALEMA mutual aid search would have also prevented Ms. Burgan from searching for Danielle Van Dam or Amber DuBois.

    It is easy to understand that some comment may have been taked out of context or misconstrued by a reporter. However to have a failure to fact-check even the most minimal claims, such as being the only NASAR certified team in California, is ludicrous.

    - Her non-profit organization has not been able to be confirmed by easily checked sources.

    - There are questions over scope and duty, and commingling of her professional duties and her ‘non-profit’ actions.

    - No reliable or recognized certifying agency has been able to locate or produce any canine competency certification. Ms. Burgen’s SARTECH II certification is a basic, entry level, land search and rescue, which does not certify canine or canine handler competency.

    - She is aggressively soliciting funds and donations in each of her articles, and on each page of her website.

    - There is an aggressive media campaign to highlight Ms. Burgan and her dogs, which only furthers donations.

    - Her claims of deployment are just not credible (including her website claims of being a deployable asset for San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue, for KlaasKids, for Global Child Rescue, Team Amber Rescue, etc).

    Far too many red flags for too many reasons.

    Kimberly Kelly

  2. celeste says:

    Omfg are you serious? This Kim Kelly is so full of sh*t!!! Ocean diver for human remains? She is not even BASIC scuba certified! This woman does nothing but bash people she is jealous of and attempts to make herself look good in the process… She barely has a high school education yet claims to be an expert in so many things. If you check out her resume its so full of lies and misleading statements. If you look carefully enough you will see that she uses and destroying people, just like she is trying to destroy Ms. Burgen. KIM KELLY’s B.S. claims of her “search and rescue career” are also extremely exaggerated or out and out lies. I’m still laughing about the underwater recovery of human remains… watch out for this woman people… and Babs you gotta stop drinking the koolaid… vet the info first… you don’t have to dig deep to expose Kim Kelly as a total fraud. Nikki, this black lady has gotcha 6.

    • Brian Erickson says:

      Celeste, or April Brenner as your true name is, why do you not release your relation to this whole issue? Your ridiculous attacks on Ms. Kelly are specious. I have known Ms Kelly for over 15 years and can vouch for her credentials. I have been on a California Search and Rescue team for over 20 years and have worked with Ms Kelly several times during my SAR career.

    • Bruce says:

      Celeste –
      I happen know that you are the fraud here, with a personal beef against Ms Kelly. Your statements are highly inflammatory and libelous. You should consider finding yourself a different hobby other than harassing this woman. What is stated by Kimberly in regards to certifications and dog training is true. What you refer to as fraudulent is merely a sick fantasy in your brain. Should I disclose to everyone your real name?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Well, that’s odd, because a quick search of Professional Dive Instructors, International (PADI) verifies she certified under Brad Whittenburg (PADI, NAUI), on February 4, 1996, and was current as of yesterday.

    Searching online also seems to verify that she was with a Sheriff’s Department dive team for over a decade.

    PADI Temporary Card

    Name: Kimberly R. Kelly
    Diver No: 9602033507
    Birth Date: XX-XXX-19XX
    Certification: Open Water
    Cert. Date: 04-Feb-1996
    Instructor Name: BRADLEY W. WHITTENBURG
    Instructor No: 56483
    Store Name: Dive center
    Replacement Date: 09-Dec-2013
    This diver has satisfactorily met the standards for this certification level as set forth by PADI.

  4. TJ says:

    I am glad to see that the coast news was able to update some of the factual information for the K9 resources in CA in the addendum to the article.

    It’s people like Burgan that leave a bad taste in the mouths of legitimate SAR K9 handlers – the ones who are with legitimate teams and do not wander about proclaiming how great they are. The ones who have done what it takes to become a part of a County Sheriff’s team, or a State recognized team – that require a BACKGROUND check. One has to wonder why Burgan hasn’t bothered to become a part of any of those teams.

    Kudos to Ms Kelly for speaking up and sharing the truth where Burgan is concerned. Maybe one person will take heed before opening their wallet and donating.

    And shame on you Celeste (AKA April Brenner as previously stated….) for spitting out vitriol (do you even know what that word means??) that has no truth to it. Be careful when you are calling the kettle black … or calling yourself a black lady for that matter.

  5. Chas says:

    Celeste is not who you think. And Kim Kelly Falconer is not who she says she is either. It’s apparent that Kim either talked her friends into responding or responded herself using other names. It shows how she is able to rake someone over the coals but unable to take the same kind of heat when her flaws are pointed out. Regarding dive certifications: open water dive certification (which is all Kim Kelly has) is much different than being a rescue diver, as Kim Kelly claims. An Open water diving certification is the lowest level of certification. Next comes “Advanced Open Water diver” certification. Then “Rescue diver” certification. Go back to PADI and see if Ms. Kelly/Falconer has any certs beyond basic. Open Water does NOT equate with rescue diver. Kim claiming to be one with only an open water certification is ludicrous and insulting to those of us who have worked hard and EARNED our rescue diver certs, and who truly are RESCUE DIVERS.

  6. dean says:

    If Coastal News made the error. Then Ms. Kelly owe an apology to Ms. Bergman.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Chas (/”Celeste”), voicemails and emails tying “Celeste” to April Brenner have already been recorded, traced, established.

    “Celeste” is not Nikki Burgan.

    Nikki Burgan, in the original article, claimed she and Rummy were the only certified NASAR dog team in California. It was not a misunderstanding on the part of the paper. The paper clarified a failure to fact check after being given the rest of the information.

    “Celeste”‘s identity has already been confirmed.

    In her first posting, she questions Kimberly Kelly: “Ocean diver for human remains? She is not even BASIC scuba certified! ” but when given the information for PADI, independently, suddenly Ms. Kelly is certified, but not to what “Celeste” wants.

    Kimberly Kelly certified with PADI as an open water diver, and has never lost her licensure, her certificate, or her status.

    She also certified with Dive Rescue International, Denver, Colorado, several times, through the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Underwater Search and Recovery Team, through both stand alone certifications and multi-department (SDSO, SDPD, Coronado, SDFD, and others) trainings, under Michael Downs and associated staff, and was with San Diego County Sheriff’s Dive Team from 10/1995 – 11/2007.

    Ms. Kelly also received both a Letter of Commendation on 09/15/1998 for her actions, as a specialist with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, as a “member of the crew” that save the life of a dive team member who embolized during a recovery mission, and also received a “Medal of Distinguished Service” on April 26, 2005, for her services rendered in this capacity.

    I have seen the commendations, I have seen the certifications, and “Celeste” – it’s pretty clear who you are. Your meta-data, timing of posts, blog, comments here and elsewhere are taking valuable time away from the people who need it most.

    Should you like to continue, you should be aware that while you can certainly delete a Blogspot (although copies were made, and metadata preserved), you do not, and cannot control the Coastal News’ server files. You have no way to delete or edit your comments (and they have already been preserved, such as Nikki Burgan’s article), and as such, every time you log in under a factitious/falsified name, your ISP, and your device from which you utilize such services, is recorded.

    Have a happy day.

  8. Jim Fred says:

    So, before Niki started this scam to profit off of the death of her parents, she was a….well, I’ll let you read for yourself to make your own decision. Check out the below hyperlink of a blog written by Mrs. Burgan:


  9. Jen says:

    “Celeste” are you related to Kim Kelly? Is your name April Brenner-Falconer? Whats with the personal vendetta?

Leave a Reply

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a Gravatar.