Arson Dogs — An Underutilized Tool in the Fire Investigator’s Tool Box

As in any job that we perform on the fireground, it is essential to use all tools we have at our disposal. We need to use these tools properly and in a profuse manner. I have been a fire investigator for over 15 years and have spent countless hours “digging out” fire scenes. In August of 2015 I became certified as part of an Accelerant Detection Canine Team. The use of an Accelerant Detection Canine — arson dog — is a viable tool that is not utilized by most investigators. The time I have spent on fire scenes digging out has been drastically reduced. What used to take four hours is now taking sometimes less than one hour.


State Farm Insurance Company has provided arson dogs to fire and police departments throughout North America for the past 24 years. State Farm even provides scholarships for teams in states where they do not sell insurance. The agencies must provide a handler for the canine but there is no cost to the agencies for the canine. The only requirement is providing the canine to other agencies when requested. The host agency picks up all costs which includes vet bills, food, overtime and travel that is associated with the canine.

The reason State Farm provides these canines is to combat arson. Arson fires cost insurance companies millions of dollars each year and countless numbers of lives. Each year more and more devastating fires are happening throughout our country. State Farm came up with a theory years ago that if we provide resources to combat arson, we may see a reduction in lives and property lost to fire. So, the State Farm Arson Dog Program was launched.

The Canine Accelerant Detection teams are formed in Maine. State Farm provides the canine, and local agencies have to apply to State Farm to receive one of the canines. Twice a year there is a 200 hour class that any new handler and canine team must attend and successfully complete. On the first Sunday in April and August the handler is matched up with a canine that best matches his or her demeanor with that of the dogs. This intensive 200 hour training program is taught by Maine Specialty Dogs, certified by the Maine State Police and under the guidelines through the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. Once completed, the new teams are released to go back and serve their communities.

Maine Specialty Dogs is lead by Paul Gallagher and his staff. The staff consists of retired canine handlers with varying backgrounds. They include police patrol dogs, bomb dogs, narcotics dogs, arson dogs and as of late, bed bug dogs. Paul and his staff are top notch. NFPA has even approached Maine Specialty Dogs in reference to writing a chapter in NFPA 921 on Accelerant Detection Dogs.

Annually each of these teams must recertify to maintain their certification. This certification has, and will stand up in a court of law. Currently there are 91 teams. In South Carolina the teams are, John Perry and K9 Abby with the Burton Fire District, James Cyganiewicz and K9 Summer in Horry County, Jason Nurmi and K9 Jag with Parker District in Greenville County and our newest team, Ricky Flowers and K9 Cato in Dillion county. North Carolina teams are Danny Hill and K9 Darby in New Bern, Bryan Phillips and K9 Friday in Carthage and Dean Castaldo in Clyde.

Accelerant detection canines are trained to sniff out minute traces of accelerants — gasoline, lighter fluid, etc. — that may have been used to start a fire. Each dog works and lives with their handler who is a law enforcement officer or firefighter trained to investigate fire scenes.

These dogs are food reward dogs. This means if these dogs are not working or training with scent discrimination — training aids — they are not eating. The handler is responsible for maintaining their training log, which includes the type of training, number of repetitions and amount of food intake per day. Abby consumes anywhere from one to four cups of food during our scent discrimination training with 15 to 45 repetitions smelling the gas odor. High praise is given to the canine each and every time it alerts to an odor.

When a request is made for the team, the host department covers Workman’s Compensation and all travel expenses associated with the call. Once on scene, the handler meets with the Incident Commander and a decision is made as to what the team is requested to do. At this time, the handler performs a safety walk though. This is mandatory so that no injuries occur to either the canine or the handler. The handler will then give the canine the command “Break,” which means a water and bathroom break. This is done outside of the scene. At this time, the team proceeds to the scene and starts to work with the command “Seek.” It is up to the handler to then read the dog as to what he or she is alerted to. The spot is then marked. A second trip through is made with the team. If the canine alerts to the same spot, samples from that spot are taken after the canine has been secured. The samples are then collected by the handler. Once all samples are collected, they are taken to an area remote from the collection site to be confirmed. The samples are then rechecked by the canine to see if it is hit on again. Samples are then sent off for forensic testing. A “Chain of Custody” is maintained through storage and transportation to forensics.

The longest time between a fire occurring and Abby and I working the scene with positive alerts is two days. We had to wait that long due to an approaching hurricane. She had one alert in the area of origin and one in a hallway. When the results came back from the forensic lab, they were positive for gasoline. My Deputy Chief Tom Webb, put it to me the best, “always trust your dog.” He was right.

There have been only three occasions of us not working a scene during an incident. Once was because of the storm and the other two have been because of unstable buildings.

We have worked fires in large fields, multi-story buildings, mobile homes and even vehicle fires with a few of those fires resulting in fatalities. So far this year Abby is 90 percent confirmed by lab with positive samples that were gasoline. During our classes instructors have said, “Dogs are funny when around dead bodies.” We worked a scene one time where Abby’s alerts were located in close proximity of a body. She worked the scene and had seven alerts, but when it was time to check the samples she let me know that she was not getting out of the truck to check these samples. I even picked her up and sat her on the ground in an attempt to get her working. By the time I reached for the door, she was back in the truck spinning around and shaking her head no.

Abby has saved the Burton Fire District numerous hours in overtime by cutting down the number of hours our investigators are spending on fire scenes. This year Abby is responsible for at least one suspect being detained prior to us leaving the scene.

Next time you are working a fire scene, and need help with cause and origin, please give your local team the opportunity to help you out.

John Perry is a 20-year veteran of Burton Fire District with 15 years of investigation and starting his third year as a K9 handler.Abby is an eight-year-old full-blooded black lab. She has serviced the district for seven years and has worked more than 200 fires. Abby likes to work with her handler as they do community demonstrations that include schools, churches and civic organizations. Most of all Abby likes to work fire scenes.

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