UNION TOWNSHIP (Hunterdon) — In the last year, the volunteer fire department in the Pattenburg section has had to put down both of its original K-9s who dated back to the start of the program nine years ago. Officials have estimated the cost for training and care for just one new dog to be about $35,000, so they are asking for the public's help.

Assistant Fire Chief Jason Narbonne said because the company is 100-percent volunteer, its members are on call 24/7. That means for people in the area of Union Township, Bethlehem and Alexandria, reaching out to Pattenburg's K-9 unit to respond is potentially a much quicker solution than waiting for a county prosecutor's or sheriff's office, or even the State Police.

"We're one of only a handful of fire departments in the Garden State that have a K-9 unit, and obviously, us being a volunteer fire company, our K-9 unit is completely free of charge to anybody who's ever in need of it," Narbonne said.

He added that in the past, the K-9 unit has branched out of its immediate vicinity to respond to incidents, not just fires but also missing person or animal situations throughout Hunterdon, Warren, Somerset and Mercer counties.

The initial idea for the unit came from a prolonged search for a missing person with Alzheimer's who took hours to eventually find. Since then, Pattenburg has been credited with multiple finds, among them missing animals as well as people on the verge of suicide.

The firefighters already have a dog in mind, a 3-year-old purebred German shepherd. The dog is already trained in tracking and search and rescue, but Narbonne said it's not exactly a plug-and-play situation once the dog comes into the firehouse.

"It takes hours and hours and hours of training to be able to mold with the dog and become one so that you guys work together as a team," he said. "It's not something like you can just go to a store, purchase and turn on a switch and that animal works with you as if they'd known you their whole life."

A fundraiser last Friday night helped the cause, but thousands more dollars are needed, and more fundraisers are planned.

If you would like to contribute, Narbonne said anyone can come to the fire department with donations, or send them to: 513 County Road 614, Asbury, NJ 08802.

Patrick Lavery produces "New Jersey's First News" and is New Jersey 101.5's morning drive breaking news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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