Maine Fire Investigators Partnering With Four-Footed Helpers - Arson Dogs

Jul 15, 2014

Justin Davis of the San Antonia Fire Department, with his arson dog Kai.
Justin Davis of the San Antonia Fire Department, with his arson dog Kai.
Credit Patty wi

Arsons accounted for more than 150 fires last year in Maine. They killed three people, injured more than a dozen and caused more than $4 million worth of property damage. The state Fire Marshal's Office investigates thousands of fires a year to determine which are crimes, and increasingly relies on arson dogs to help with the investigations.

Maine has become a premier training ground for dogs that do this special work.
 
Every day is a work day for Shasta, a black lab with the Maine State Fire Marshal's office. She's currently getting re-certified as an arson dog, and as part of her training she bounds into a burned out house in Yarmouth to sniff out ignitable liquids.

Her handler, Dan Young, a fire investigator, gives commands as Shasta runs her nose along the perimeter of the room. When she smells something suspicious, she sits, and looks up at Young - or rather, at the pouch of food he's wearing around his waist.
 

Fire investigator Dan Young with arson dog Shasta.
Fire investigator Dan Young with arson dog Shasta.
Credit Patty Wight

"Show me better! Good girl," Young tells Shasta.

"She's food reward, and labs love food, so basically that's how she gets fed everyday,' he says. "She has to work."

As one of two arson dogs in Maine, Shasta sometimes investigates three fire scenes in one day. It's rigorous work, says Paul Gallagher, a former member of the Maine State police, who now trains dogs from across the country as part of the State Farm Arson Dog Program.

He says the dogs can recognize as many as 60 different accelerants. And they can do it in a fraction of the time humans can, and more accurately.

"Years ago on fire scenes, we used to take a sample here, take a sample here, take a sample here, take a sample there, take a sample there, and hope one of them is coming back positive," he says. "With a dog we may only take two."

Maine State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas says arson dogs are critical in determining whether a fire is accidental or suspicious.
 

State Fire Marshall Joe Thomas.
State Fire Marshall Joe Thomas.
Credit Patty Wight

"I mean, when you look at a fire scene and you've got just a debris pile, and those dogs can work that scene and detect small minute residual effects of hydrocarbon, and you send it off the lab and, lo and behold, you've got a positive result," Thomas says. "it's pretty impressive."

"You know, I always tell people if the dogs in our program had thumbs and a driver's license, they wouldn't need us," says Justin Davis, an investigator with the San Antonio, Texas Fire Department who is re-certifying his black lab Kai.

Like all the other arson dogs in the State Farm Arson Dog Program, she's an important partner for her handler, and a beloved family pet.

"I spend more time with Kai than probably anybody else because she lives at home with me and my family," Davis says. "When I go to work, she's with me. If we get a call in the middle of the night, she's there ready and waiting to go to work."

Just a few years ago, Kai was a stray in Illinois, picked up by the pound and due to be euthanized when someone from the local Humane Society noticed she had a special spark and her driven nature would make her a good working dog. This fall, Kai will be recognized by the Humane Society as a national hero.

"She is a hero dog because she promotes what a shelter dog can be turned into," Davis says. "Since we've been working together, we've worked over 200 fire scenes."

The State Farm Arson Dog Program in Maine has trained more than 300 arson dogs teams since it began in 1993. Most dogs work at least six to seven years before they retire to become family pets.