Salina fire dog sniffs out arson

SALINA (AP) - Early in her training, Ashes, the new arson dog at the Salina Fire Department, was sniffing out smoldering embers in the burn room of the department's downtown training tower.

After locating a suspicious scent in the embers, the black Labrador sat as she had been trained, waiting for fire prevention officer Troy Long to give her further instructions.

As Long surveyed the scene, he could hear Ashes whimper softly. Long instructed her to point out the exact location of the suspicious material. Ashes stood and put her nose in the spot. Satisfied, Long ordered her to sit again, and once again she whimpered.

Long discovered Ashes had been sitting directly on a hot ember that had become separated from the pile.

"She would have sat there for five minutes if she had to," Long said.

It was then Long knew Ashes would be a dedicated arson dog.

Earlier this year, the 10-month-old Lab was purchased from a trainer at Rivera Police Canines, a Junction City firm that trains dogs for police, sheriff and fire departments. The Salina Fire Department purchased Ashes to sniff out suspicious fire scenes for possible arson origin.

Long said certain breeds of dogs, such as Labradors, have the kind of drive and energy that makes them effective at sniffing out evidence.

"You're looking for the kind of dog that if you roll a ball, he's knocking everyone over to get it," he said. "He's a very even-tempered dog with a desire to please and a very good work ethic. That's what you want in a working dog."

Ashes began training at 11 weeks old and already has recorded 120 hours of training time, Long said.

Every two weeks, Long and Ashes travel to Junction City to show the professional trainer at Rivera what arson training exercises they have been working on and to receive instructions for the next two weeks.

"It's something you work on continually," he said.

Exercises have included sniffing buckets that contain items, such as burnt plastic, and carpeting that contain the residue of an accelerant, such as gasoline, that might be used by an arsonist to start a fire.

Just two weeks ago, the dog was certified by Rivera in 14 different odors and accelerants, Long said. In October, Ashes will receive certification from the Heart of America Police Dog Association.

Long chose not to reveal the identity of all the suspicious scents, so as not to give budding arsonists fire-starting tips.

Ashes' ability to detect multiple odors makes her a more effective arson-detecting tool than a hydrocarbon detector, a mechanical device used at fire scenes for more than 20 years.

"It was a mechanical sniffer that smelled hydrocarbons," Long said. "Ashes can differentiate between different hydrocarbons. She can run over an area and discriminate odors."

The dog also is being trained in evidence location, Long said.

"Arson is hard to prove, so the more evidence you have, the easier it is to prove," he said. "If a lighter is used to set a car on fire, it might possibly have fingerprints, so I can let her go and look for that."

Ashes is trained to give a passive alert after finding a suspicious scent or item, as opposed to a police dog, which might dig at the scene and become more aggressive, Long said.

"You don't want her to dig because a fire scene could have glass in it - or hot embers," Long said. "She even has boots she wears at a fire scene to protect her feet."

Ashes is led around the scene of the fire by a handler, sniffing until she locates the suspicious area. Evidence then is gathered and sent to a Kansas Bureau of Investigation lab, where the exact cause of the fire will be determined.

Ashes already has been used during one investigation of a suspicious fire in Salina, where she made two positive indications of arson activity, Long said.

"It's nice to see eight months of training come together," he said.

Ashes lives at Long's home and goes to work with him each day. Long said Ashes gets along well with his other dog, another black Labrador.

"They're like a couple of teenagers," he said. "My 5-year-old and her also have become best friends. They'll fall asleep on the floor with his arm around her."

At the downtown station, Ashes has become a favorite of the firefighters. Salina Fire Chief Larry Mullikin called her a tremendous asset.

"She'll cut the time down on investigations, so investigators can take samples in the right locations," he said. "She brings a lot of life to the office. She's a working dog and an office friend."

In addition to her regular duties, Ashes will be used as an educational tool. Plans are to take the dog into elementary and high schools to teach kids about fire safety, Mullikin said.

Ashes isn't the only four-legged tool at the Salina Fire Department. A 10-month-old sable German Shepherd named Ryker is being trained as a search-and-rescue dog.

Ryker's job will be to look for people trapped in building collapses during fires and major catastrophes, participate in rescues, recover evidence, and locate cadavers.

But unlike Ashes, who was approved for purchase and insured by the city of Salina, Ryker belongs wholly to Salina Fire Marshal Roger Williams.

"The fire department doesn't own him, I do, but he'll be available for the whole community," Williams said.

Williams said he expects Ryker to be a certified search-and-rescue dog by the end of the year.

"He's got a heck of a nose on him," Williams said. "That's something both dogs share."

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