Newest Investigator has a Nose for Arson
Early on a cold, gray morning, the newest fire investigator for Moore County shrugs off a steady rain and ignores the smoke-scented air, as he eagerly awaits the start of a training session.
Public Safety Director Bryan Phillips starts the exercise with a quick command, and the dark-eyed investigator with jet-black hair rushes into the building at the Larry R. Caddell Public Safety Training Center in Carthage.
In seconds, he finds what he seeks in the dark, smoke-charred building, sits and waits.
He is Friday, a 13-month-old black Labrador, is Moore County’s first accelerant-detection — or arson — dog. And it’s his nose that sets him apart from other fire investigators.
“The scent-discriminating abilities of a canine are better than any equipment we can take to a fire scene when arson is suspected,” Phillips said.
Trained to sniff out minute traces of accelerant, like gasoline, kerosene and lighter fluid, that might have been used to start fires, Friday has been on the job since May 4.
During this training session he needs only minutes to find all five spots where the scent of accelerant has been left.
Friday was used for the first time at a real fire last week, and Phillips said his presence allows fire investigators to be more thorough and efficient because they can start their investigation immediately and don’t have to wait for another agency to provide an arson dog.
“Now we are not tying up resources waiting for a dog to get there because we lose custody of the scene if we leave. With Friday, we can start sooner and be finished in a more timely fashion,” he said.
When on scene, Phillips gives Friday a command and the animal goes into work mode, quickly scanning the area, nose to the ground. When he arrives on a suspicious area, he alerts. Once he alerts on a spot, it is marked and the dog is removed. Then investigators come back in and collect samples from the area, which will be sent to the state crime lab for analysis.
“He is another tool in our tool box to determine if there is something there that maybe shouldn’t be there,” Phillips said.
Described as a service dog who had a career change, Friday came to Moore County through a program with State Farm. The county applied for an arson dog three years ago, and got Friday back in December. Before he could go to work, Friday and Phillips had to complete 200 hours of training in a five-week canine accelerant school in Maine.
“We were very excited to get him,” Phillips said. “We know the dogs are a limited resource and that the program to get one is very competitive.”
Friday is the third dog placed in North Carolina through the State Farm program. Others are with the Winston-Salem and the Elizabeth City fire departments. Phillips said he knows of only about five organizations in North Carolina that have arson dogs, which are also provided through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Since its beginning in 1993, the State Farm program has placed more than 300 dogs in 44 states, three Canadian provinces and the District of Columbia.
“We want to help support the efforts of the Moore County Department of Public Safety to douse arson fires in Moore County and surrounding area and put criminals behind bars,” said Heather Paul, a public relations representative from State Farm.
“The scope of arson goes beyond impacting insurance companies: It affects the personal and financial well-being of us all. Training dogs to detect accelerants at fire scenes saves time and money in arson investigations.”
All arson K-9s and their handlers must be recertified every year. Phillips said he is hopeful that Friday can have a working lifespan of at least 10 years.
Unlike police dogs, which can be a variety of breeds, all arson dogs obtained through the State Farm program are Labrador retrievers and are trained using a food reward method. Labradors have a superior ability to discriminate among scents at a fire scene. Their noses can smell in parts per quintillion.
Phillips said Friday will also be loaned out to other departments to help investigate fires
When Friday is not working at work, he is usually training or acclimating himself to his new job through obedience training, meeting new people, and plenty of play and lots of training.
Friday runs through an assortment of accelerant identification training activities three to four times each day. Most sessions take 30 to 60 minutes and are designed to keep the dog interested.
“We try to mix it up so that he doesn’t get into a routine,” Phillips said. “We want his senses to stay sharp.”
Contact Tom Embrey at (910) 693-2484 or by email at tembrey @thepilot.com.
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