Greg Keller and Charlotte search for clues following an arson-caused fire in Lewiston, Idaho, which caused $1 million in damage. Charlotte's detective skills are used on the scenes of both structural and wildland fires that are of suspicious origin.
Wildland firefighters often fight fire with fire, but fire investigators around the country are fighting arson with K-9 units. Oregon has two arson dogs on duty. Charlotte is a 7-year-old black Labrador retriever handled by Capt. Greg Keller of the Portland Fire Bureau. Deacon, a 5-year-old black Lab, is handled by Det. Mark Merrill with the Oregon State Police (OSP) arson/explosives section. Merrill and Deacon teamed up in the spring of 1994 when Merrill flew to Connecticut for training; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) works with the Connecticut State Police on the arson dog program.
Why would anyone sign on for a five-year contract as an arson K-9 handler? "I didn't know what I was getting into," laughs Merrill. He explains that the food-reward system used to maintain skills in the detection of accelerants -- flammable liquids -- requires a serious commitment on the part of the handler. "Most drug dogs in Oregon are on a toy-reward system," he says. "They're rewarded with a tennis ball or a sock or something. The food reward system, though, is the way Connecticut has always trained their dogs, and I have a five-year contract with ATF -- seven days a week for five years. The only way that Deacon gets fed is if he finds something. He eats only out of my hand."
Schooling begins weeks before the dogs and handlers are buddied up. A trainer directs the dog's attention to a small tin lid containing two drops of 50 percent evaporated gasoline. The dog then gets a few chunks of food, and quickly learns to associate the smell of gas with food -- his job in life is now to find traces of gas or other flammable liquids. When the handlers arrive for the five-week team sessions, the dogs are taught "primary alert" and "secondary alert." When a dog finds accelerant, he's supposed to sit -- that's primary alert. Secondary alert is the dog's change in attitude -- salivation, excitement, and attempts at eye contact with the handler. Other accelerants are then introduced, and handlers hide a drop or two in cracks in cement, on stairways, or in chipped asphalt.
At home with Keller and his wife, Charlotte is just a pet. "I don't train her at home," he says. "On my days off, I go to a fire station to train her -- so she separates home and play from work. She's spoiled, though -- I tell people I'm with Charlotte more than I'm with my wife."
The accelerant detection K-9 training program was launched in 1985 under a collaborative effort of ATF, the New Haven State's Attorney's Office, Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Lab, Bureau of the State Fire Marshal, and the Emergency Services Division's K-9 Unit. Dogs from this program are better able to find accelerants on a fire scene than humans with electronic detection devices. Hydrocarbon detectors are sensitive to gasoline components in the parts-per-million (ppm) range. These detectors, according to fire investigator Dean Bundy of Bundy, Gale, Shields in Portland, Oregon, resemble a flashlight with a wand on it.
"It has a little vacuum in it that sucks in the vapors as you run it across the floor," he says. "It gives you a reading and tells you if it's light or medium or heavy fuel. What it doesn't tell is whether it was there prior to the fire."
Dogs, though, can pinpoint traces that escape electronic detection. In an independent study in Illinois that was designed to determine the smallest amount detectable by the dogs, they found .01 microliter of 50 percent evaporated gasoline 100 percent of the time. "They can find it if they look," says Merrill, "but we don't want them searching for something that minute. A drop is the smallest I use on Deacon. The crime lab explained to me that a .01 microliter sample is about the size of a thousandth of a drop."
The program is built around the lab analysis of samples taken by investigators after the dogs key in on the location of residual accelerants on a fire scene. Despite the dogs' inherent ability to locate accelerants, lab analysis of samples is the key to the program's success. "There are kind of two camps on the dogs' use," says Sgt. Jeff Howard, arson section manager with OSP. "The Connecticut State Police and the ATF have stressed the party line from the beginning -- the dog is just a tool. Period. He who uses the dog as an expert without lab confirmation is a fool."
An arson dog is no ordinary tool, however. They live to find traces of flammable liquid, and have been invaluable on arson investigations. When called out to a fire scene, the dog and its handler go right to work.
"Deacon sits and puts his nose down on the strongest odor," says Merrill, "which tells me where to take samples from. On the seek command, he'll search an area or a room or a wall or whatever I direct him to. There are other programs in the U.S., but the ATF and Connecticut dogs are superior at finding the exact spot. If someone threw gasoline all over a room, for example, Deacon's job is not just to find the proximity, but to alert to the strongest place. We then take that section of carpet or floor and put it in a can and line it up with other cans. We then run him by the can again to confirm that we have something there that's going to the crime lab."
Most of the pre-dog samples that OSP was sending to the lab were running below 50 percent on positive results, says Merrill. After Deacon came on board, that rate jumped to above 90 percent for positive accelerant readings. Keller says the Portland Fire Bureau, too, is taking fewer but more accurate samples than they were prior to adding Charlotte to the arson team.
Labs use gas chromatography to determine substances, according to Bundy. "They heat the sample, and it creates a headspace of vapor in the can. Then they draw off a sample of the vapor with a needle and insert it into the chromatograph," he says. "That will give them a reading on what the volatile is. There are signatures for nearly every vapor, but it's difficult to be specific. Some labs use mass stectrometry, and they can come closer to identifying the elements within the vapor."
Keller occasionally works with national response teams. Part of the trade-off with ATF sponsorship of the dogs, he says, is that the dogs and handlers remain available to assist ATF in working with one of the four national response teams. "Whenever a local fire department calls in and requests assistance from the ATF, they'll send in a team," he says. "It's a 20-some-person team including origin and cause investigators, a polygraph examiner, an explosives person, a crime lab person, and a dog and handler. The ATF agents pair up with local fire and police on an investigation."
Deacon was a guide dog for the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown, New York. Dogs that don't make it through the foundation's program for one reason or another are sold to the ATF for $1,000. "The foundation is understandably picky about their dogs," explains Merrill. "In Deacon's case, they couldn't break him from rabbits."
"He flunked out," says Howard, "because he had this tendency to take off after varmints, which can be a problem for a blind person on the end of a harness."
Charlotte, too, flunked out of the guide dog program. She's technically a police dog, because Portland Fire Bureau employees are cross-trained as police officers. "She's not the obedient German Shepherd patrol dog that people usually think of," says Keller. "She'll sit and stay and lie down, but her attention span is that of a 2-year-old."
Trainers in re-certification testing use a daisy wheel setup to teach the dogs to differen-tiate among substances that are typically found on a fire scene. "This daisy wheel uses two-by-two boards with gallon cans on the ends," says Merrill. "Inside the cans are a whole collection of things they might find on a fire -- soaps, blood, skin, burned foam rubber -- everything. We train them on the wheels, and if they're interested in an odor that's not an accelerant, they aren't rewarded. A lot of the scents are close; some items like polyurethane plastics and foam rubber cushions will change chemically in a fire, and the scents are almost identical to gas. Somehow the dog knows the difference -- no one's sure how they do it. At the school they are exposed to several different fuels -- Coleman fuel, diesel, lacquer thinner, gas, and charcoal lighter fluid. It depends on the maturity of the dog, but some of them will alert to 20 different things."
Deacon's claim to fame is the $4 million Rainier High School fire. "The detectives asked for the dog and I went up there," recalls Merrill. "The roof was on the floor, and it ranged from several inches to several feet of debris on the floor of the school room. Deacon alerted within a few seconds. We took samples and they all came back positive. Dogs are very valuable on a fire like that -- as an investigator you're scratching your head, because you could spend days and days and days picking up stuff and smelling it, but the whole time you're losing evidence because of dissipation."
Greg Keller practices canine resuscitation on a dummy "resusci-doggie."
Though Deacon has quite a reputation, he does experience an occasional misfire. "We worked with him on a structural fire not too long ago," says Howard. "We had to get Deacon up in an attic, and he did not want to come down."
"They can help us process a scene and eliminate the possibility of accelerants in a shorter time," says Howard. "Or they can help us zero in on an area that we need to look at a little harder. If an accelerant is used, it oftentimes is not detectable to our noses, and the fire appears to have progressed normally. Once Deacon alerts to an area, though, you can send it to a lab and find out. He really likes to work, and when he comes onto a scene you get everybody out of the way and follow his lead."
Deacon is so well-known in Oregon fire circles that Merrill has nearly become anonymous. "I've kind of lost my identity," he says. "I have people all day long come over and pet him and say hi to him. They ask if it bothers me that he gets all the attention. I tell them no, I handle it quite well -- I have two psychiatrists who are really helpful. People call up here looking for me and they have to apologize and say, 'I don't know the guy's name, but he has this dog called Deacon.'"
"Once he's working," says Merrill, "it's pretty difficult to distract him. I learned a lesson one day with the food reward; I did a fatal fire over on the coast, and I parked my vehicle at a gas station and put my food pouch on. When he sees that he gets attentive. Well, I got him out of the vehicle, not realizing that I was in the service station parking lot. He nearly dislocated my shoulder on his way out of there -- he went and sat down on the lid where they fill the tanks like he'd found the motherlode of gasoline."
Both handlers and dogs must attend re-certification once a year. Merrill says it's helpful to compare notes with other handlers, but that the sessions can be rowdy. "You can imagine 48 dogs all together at one hotel," he says. "Each of them wants to get to know the others, and there are always two or three that are really dominant. You have to keep your dog away from them, or the fight's on. They get off the elevator and they all want to say hi, and they get on the elevator and they all want to say hi. They're tugging and pulling all day long. It's chaos."
Charlotte and Deacon serve the entire state of Oregon at no cost to the departments who sponsor them, thanks to the generosity of Aetna Insurance Company and the Oregon Council Against Arson.
Pete Norkeveck, chief of investigations for the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), was once a K-9 officer with a sheriff's department in New England. He explains that ODF works cooperatively on arson investigations with OSP. "The dogs' ability to detect accelerant is invaluable on a fire of suspicious origin," says Norkeveck. "We bring in a K-9 team on most any wildland fire situation we can. The dogs are far more reliable than electronic detection -- a dog is worth three times its weight in gold." He says the K-9 units have helped clear cases, and they're a wonder to watch. "I've seen the way Deacon works with his handler, and I've worked off and on with a half dozen teams. He's the best I've ever seen."
"They're tremendously underpaid for the value they provide," he says. "What the dog brings to an investigation is beyond what we humans can imagine." He says both dogs were used during last year's fire season, and that they made tremendous contributions to clearing cases. "There's not a better way to clear them," he says. "For someone using accelerants, their worst enemy is this dog."
Photo credit: Greg Keller, Portland (Oregon) Bureau of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services.
My thanks to Kerin Elder who first brought this article to my attention, and to Brian Ballou, Editor of Wildland Firefighter Magazine, who so helpfully arranged reprint permission.