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Fla. fire officials train arson dogs

Officials said the dogs are extremely effective at detecting the accelerants

By Jennifer Edwards-Park
The News-Journal

BUNNELL, Fla. — Throughout the country, more and more fire investigators are turning to special dogs to help them turn up arson after a fire has damaged a building.

But they’re not using any special breeds. Mostly they’re using friendly Labs with powers of smell that far surpass any human equivalent.

The state’s Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigation’s K-9s were deployed 365 times across the state in the past year, communications coordinator Jon Moore wrote in an email. Of that number, they were sent 13 times to Volusia County and three times to Flagler.

Recently, about 30 of these special (and playful) dogs converged from all over the country at Flagler County’s “burn building,” a four-story building used by firefighters to train for house fires. The K-9s and their handlers tested the dogs’ sniffing acumen in finding an accelerant hidden in the four-story building last week.

The bureau has six arson dogs in Florida, and five sought re-certification in the recent Flagler test. Paul Gallagher, owner of the Maine-based program, supervised the exercise and said the dogs don’t have to find the substance — 50 percent alcohol — the first time.

“If they don’t find it, they get a second chance,” he said.

But if they still can’t find it, back to training they go.

Asked about the overwhelming number of black Labrador retrievers represented among the dogs, he explained that they are liked by most people, and friendly to boot. A lot of them welcome belly rubs and ear scratches, tails a-wag.

And, well, “We use Labs because we like them,” Gallagher said.

Plus, they have extremely good senses of smell. The Labs are one of the top 10 dog breeds in terms of smell and some can even detect cancer on a person’s breath, according to the American Kennel Club.

For the test, the dogs climbed up the metal shaking steps into bleak rooms with hay scattered here and there. Most were successful in finding the stuff inside a hay-filled washtub.

That included Jesse Gomes’ dog Taylor, 9. The pair traveled from Virginia to participate in the exercise, which re-certifies successful dogs.

Gomes, assistant fire marshal for the city of Hampton, said the dogs were extremely effective at detecting the accelerants, which arsonists use to help start and intensify blazes.

“From what I’ve experienced, we can go in .. (find accelerant) eight times faster” with the dogs, Gomes said. “This (method) is far superior.”

State Farm started the arson dog program in 1993, paying to train more than 360 dog and handler teams in 44 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces, according to a news release.

Copyright 2016 The News-Journal

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