An earthquake on the Hayward Fault causes major devastation in the Bay Area. Scores of patients, visitors and employees are trapped inside a damaged hospital. State emergency management officials dispatch canine search and rescue teams to locate the missing and help recover the dead.

The emergency responders must continuously train to be prepared for disasters like this that could occur at any time without warning. Yet one of their biggest challenges is finding vacant multistory buildings that can be used to simulate the real deal.

Alameda County Sheriff Search and Rescue canine handler Brandi Schmitt works with her dog Cyrus inside of the empty Eden Medical Center during a training
Alameda County Sheriff Search and Rescue canine handler Brandi Schmitt works with her dog Cyrus inside of the empty Eden Medical Center during a training operation on Sunday, March 3, 2013, in Castro Valley, Calif. About 30 canine teams took part in search and rescue drills at the old hospital. (Aric Crabb/Staff)

Alameda County Search and Rescue got lucky. It just so happens that the Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley moved into a new building Dec. 1. The old hospital is closed. Sutter Health delayed the demolition date to allow search and rescue teams from across the state to use the building to hold drills. It was an ideal location. Medical equipment, patient beds and clutter are still strewn about the various floors -- similar to the kind of chaos the search teams might actually encounter during a real disaster.

I went to Castro Valley on Sunday to watch the volunteer handlers put their dogs through the paces. It was a fascinating glimpse into a world of passionate dog lovers who have trained their personal pets to help respond to emergencies. In the interest of realism, they even hid body parts from dead people -- donated by an academic institution -- for the dogs to sniff out during floor-to-floor search-training exercises.

Thirty volunteer teams came from Alameda County, Los Angeles, Tracy, Lassen Wilderness Area and Plumas National Forest with their Rottweilers, German shepherds, Labradors and Australian shepherds.

The volunteers belong to the California Rescue Dog Association, whose members are on call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week across the state.

The volunteers pay all of their own costs and have saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

Canine teams helped search for bodies during the Loma Prieta earthquake and the Oakland hills fire. They have been deployed in high-profile missing persons cases, including the disappearances of Nina Reiser, 31, of Oakland, in 2006; Sandra Cantu, 8, of Tracy, in 2009; and Michelle Le, 26, of Hayward, in 2011. All three were later found murdered.

Canine searchers were also dispatched in 2009 to try to locate Hasanni Campbell near a shoe store on College Avenue in Oakland, using an item of his clothing. The 5-year-old's foster father claimed he had gone missing from the parking lot, but the dogs could not detect any sign he had ever been there.

"A lot of these tests that they show on television shows like 'CSI' are exceedingly expensive," says Frances Roelfsema, captain of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue K9 unit. "We use the dogs as a screening tool to see if further tests are warranted."

Last Thursday, canine teams searched Alameda Creek in Union City after teens discovered part of a human skull. They could not find the rest of the body.

Search dogs are also used to track people with Alzheimer's, suicide victims, and people who have drowned in lakes, been buried in avalanches or been lost in wilderness areas.

Amy Vecker's canine partner is Inca, a 7-year-old Rottweiler.

Alameda County Sheriff Search and Rescue Capt. Frances Roelfsema, left,  works with her dog Tioga, along with other canine teams inside the empty Eden
Alameda County Sheriff Search and Rescue Capt. Frances Roelfsema, left, works with her dog Tioga, along with other canine teams inside the empty Eden Medical Center during a training operation on Sunday, March 3, 2013, in Castro Valley, Calif. About 30 canine teams took part in search and rescue drills at the old hospital. (Aric Crabb/Staff)

Inca sniffed out a human body part buried beneath a pile of clutter. She dropped to her stomach to alert Vecker. The dog also located someone playing dead. The person came to life and gave her a treat.

Now that is a dog who earns her keep.

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Tuesday and Sunday. Contact her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com or follow her at Twitter.com/Tammerlin.