“As someone who clearly followed her passions in life, I don’t think you can put a measure on how important it is, for young girls especially, to be encouraged to do whatever they want to do.” – Kimberly Glankler Holley ’94
IT WAS A MILD MARCH DAY, with temperatures in the low 50s, when Kimberly Glankler Holley ’94 stepped into her backyard with Ed, a black Irish Labrador retriever, by her side. Like most labs, Ed is cute, friendly, playful, and loves meeting new people. He is the epitome of an energetic lab, ready to run and fetch and play. Holley said, “Somewhere out here, I’ve hidden a source that he’s going to go and look for.” She crouched down next to Ed, unhooked his leash, and held her hand up to the side of Ed’s face. He waited expectantly. She held her hand there for a few more seconds before giving a quick command: “Search!”
Ed bolted into the yard, running and sniffing the ground. After exploring for a bit, he would loop back to Holley who quickly repeated the “search” command and off he would go again. He searched in one area, then moved forward and searched another. He darted behind some bushes and then back out again and moved further out on Holley’s property.
This isn’t just an ordinary family dog enjoying the fragrant smells of spring. Ed is a valuable team member. Holley is a K9 Search Specialist with the Tennessee Task Force One (TNTF-1), FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team. She and other volunteers are always on standby, ready to report for duty after major disasters, such as when a hurricane or a tornado passes over an area and leaves destruction in its wake. Holley’s job, along with her two dogs, Ed and Isa, is to search for disaster victims. Ed is six years old and is trained as a human remains detection dog, searching for victims who don’t survive. Isa, a regal-looking, three-year-old Belgian Malinois, is a live detection dog, trained to find survivors.
We watched as Ed continued his search. He was out ahead of us, committed to his work. There was a sense he was focusing in on something. He moved toward some mixed brush on the back of Holley’s property, investigated it, then stopped.
“He’s found it,” Holley said just as Ed started to bark. “He’s supposed to continue to bark until I get there and not leave,” she added.
Amazingly, Ed’s search only took two and half minutes. That’s impressive when every minute at a disaster site counts. Granted, Ed didn’t have to climb on any piles of rubble or walk over random debris like in real-life search and rescue situations, and, in this scenario, Holley knew where Ed needed to end up. Nevertheless, it was incredible to watch Ed demonstrate his search skills.
Within a few seconds, Ed was back to being a spirited Labrador retriever, dashing off to fetch a ball that Holley threw, his reward for a successful mission.
Ed and Holley on a search mission and at the training facility.
At First She Said No
Even though dogs have always been a big part of Kimberly Holley’s life, she has only been a certified K9 Search Specialist since 2019. In her previous life, she was in a completely different line of work.
After graduating from Hutchison in 1994, she attended the University of Arkansas, majoring in communications, with a minor in English. Her first job was with the Memphis Botanic Garden in event planning and implementation, then for Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA), which originally produced Starry Nights, the outdoor holiday lights display. When the person managing that event left, Holley’s boss handed her the assignment. Holley’s first reaction was, “ ‘Oh, no, I’m not going to do that.’ But I did it, and I loved it. I oversaw its last year and ultimately the sale of it.”
In 2004, she started working at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare as a marketing specialist, which came with increasingly more responsibility. Methodist did not have a fulltime event planner, so much of the organization and logistics of events fell to Holley. “My kids’ll tell you, ‘Mommy runs a tight ship.’ I love the attention to detail and following things through. When an event wraps up and you have watched everything move and function the way it was supposed to, it’s a really good feeling.” She worked at Methodist for 13 years.
During her last few years at Methodist, as Holley was raising three children, she began fostering dogs. “I thought it was a great learning experience for the kids, and they would help me take care of them,” she explained. “I’d always had dogs, and I had a particular soft spot for some of the dogs who had a pretty bad lot in life. I wanted to be able to help them and give them a better chance to be adopted.” Holley trained to become a Certified Canine Behavior and Training Specialist. She volunteered at the Memphis Animal Shelter, even taking dogs to the Live at 9 Show on Channel 3 to help get them adopted.
In 2016, Holley remarried. Her husband, Dr. Joe Holley, is an emergency medicine physician, and helped during the recovery operations at the Pentagon after September 11, 2001, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and after Hurricane Michael in 2018, to name a few. He serves as the medical director for TNTF-1, as well as the Memphis and Shelby County Fire Departments. He also is the CEO of Paragon Medical Education Group, which hosts emergency medical services (EMS) training classes. After Kimberly left Methodist, she decided to use her marketing, communications, and logistics experience at Paragon as the director of operations.
So how did she become a K9 Search Specialist? Holley recalled that after Joe returned from his deployment to Hurricane Michael, he told her that he’d been talking with the canine team, and that they had some open spots. “He said to me: ‘That’s what you need to go do.’ I said, ‘No. I’m not going to do that. I’m not a first responder. Corporate marketing is my thing.’ ” Joe kept encouraging her, inviting her to go watch a canine certification.
In October 2018, Holley visited the TNTF-1 training center near Millington where they were hosting a certification test.
“I crawled up on the rubble, and I watched the dogs work and I said, ‘Yup. This is what I want to do.’ ”
Holley recalled how she knew as she watched one specialist work with her dog. “The search dog was a Belgian Tervuren named Mojo. The test has volunteers serving as victims who are hidden on a giant rubble pile that is meant to replicate a collapsed structure. The way the specialist directed the dog with her hands, she could point him in different directions and he would follow her commands. He moved across the pile and found every victim that was hidden. I know about working dogs, but to watch it, it blew my mind. I thought, ‘I know that’s a lot of training, but it looks like magic.’ It’s amazing what these dogs can do. I’m still amazed by them every day.”
Within about a week of watching that simulation, Holley said, she brought home her first dog to start training. She gives credit to her husband for opening up this world. “Joe sees things in me that I may not immediately see in myself,” she said. “He sees me as being braver and more confident than I think I am. He knew that the work with the dogs would push me over the top.” She laughed and added, “It’s all Joe’s fault. Every time I bring home another dog, I remind him. This is your fault. You started this.”
Isa and Holley at the training facility.
“As Ready as I’ll Ever Be”
In the late night hours of March 2, 2020, and into the early morning hours of March 3, several supercells produced deadly tornadoes in Tennessee. According to news reports, between 11 pm and 2:30 am, 10 tornadoes touched down across the state. The strongest of the tornadoes hit Cookeville, Tennessee, about 80 miles east of Nashville. The tornado was rated an EF-4, which is considered extreme, and is the second highest rating on the scale. Winds were said to be as high as 175 miles per hour.
Holley began training in late 2018 and was certified in October 2019. The morning of March 3, she had volunteered locally to help search for a missing person. When she returned home, she immediately got ready to deploy to Cookeville. Holley explained that her and her husband’s bags are always packed and waiting in the garage, even though, as a task force rule, they rarely deploy together.
“That was the first disaster that I had worked,” Holley said. “When we arrived on site, our coordinator, who is also my mentor, asked, ‘Are you okay?’ She said, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to see today,’ and she has seen it all. Then she asked, ‘Are you ready for this?’ I replied, ‘I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.’ I don’t know that anybody’s ever ready for what you’re going to see.”
As she began searching with Ed, the first thing Holley saw was a family portrait of a husband, wife, and a young one. It was on the ground and the glass in the frame was shattered. She asked a firefighter what they were looking for, and he told Holley they were searching for a young child.
“That stopped me, because I’m a mom. Even though I know what all of this work entails, when it’s a little one, it just made me start thinking. Then training kicks in and you become very aware of your dog. You want your dog to be safe.”
Although Holley took both Ed and Isa to Cookeville, Isa stayed in the vehicle the entire time. “Once we arrived there, it was clear that human remains detection was what was required, so Ed was the one who worked.”
The Cookeville tornado devastated entire neighborhoods and claimed a total of 19 lives.
Saying Yes and Losing Some Control
“I’ve said no twice in my life when somebody’s offered me an opportunity,” Holley admitted. “Both times I said no and then did it anyway. I don’t know why ‘no’ is my go-to. Now, having opened myself up to do something so completely different at this point of my life, I will stop saying no when people offer me opportunities. I think I’ve worked that out of my system now.”
Holley is grateful for the support she’s received from bosses, mentors, her husband, Joe, and even from Hutchison. “When I was at Hutchison, I took time away to competitively show horses down in Florida during the school year, and this was way before computers and the internet,” she explained. “Hutchison was supportive of that. They sent me my work, they allowed me to do that. If you’re involved in something, and you’re passionate about it, I feel like the school has always encouraged people to follow whatever their passion is. That’s not something that they just say they do now; they’ve always been that way.
“As someone who clearly followed her passions in life, I don’t think you can put a measure on how important it is, for young girls especially, to be encouraged to do whatever they want to do. Hutchison has always encouraged the individuality of the girls. The school has never been about just one thing.” She added that her best friends from Hutchison—1994 classmates Kate Cannon, Hadley Ingram Arnold (whose daughters, Abigail ’22 and Scottie ’26, attend Hutchison now), and Margaret Ledbetter Weaver— are still her best friends today.
Nevertheless, Holley realized that being at the scene of a disaster is much different than her marketing and event planning roles were. “In my previous life, everything that I did was my doing. If I planned and executed well enough, the event was going to happen. There was a sense of control there,” Holley reflected. “When training search and rescue K9s, so much is out of your control and there are shades of gray. The dog, on a warm, sunny day is going to work completely differently than it’s going to work on a day when the barometric pressure drops, and rain is coming in. Or all of a sudden, the dog loses its scent, or they can’t find it, or their behavior changes. In the field, when you’re actually working, they’re not going to do the thing that you set up in training, because training is always artificial. It’s always pristine in some way, because it’s not ever going to be the way it’s going to be in a real disaster.
“This work is unbelievably fulfilling. I love that I get to do this every day.”
“The hardest challenge for me was to do something completely different from my previous career. As a search specialist, I can’t just walk in and be great, and my dog be great, and my search strategy be perfect, and know that everything is going to fall right in line like it’s supposed to. That’s not how disasters work. There are always curve balls, and we have to adjust.
“This work is unbelievably fulfilling. I love that I get to do this every day. I volunteer my time and my expense to do this work, and I am so glad that I said ‘yes’ ultimately. I’m glad that I stepped way out of my comfort zone after 40 to do something that I would never in a million years think that I would do.”