4-Legged Detectives Hunt Down Arsonists

Accelerant-sniffing dogs are fast becoming key to rapid-deployment arson investigation teams nationwide. They often arrive at suspected crime scenes while firefighters are still dousing the flames.

"Dogs have become our secret weapon throughout the country," said Special Agent Frank Hart of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). "Their mission is to put arsonists in jail."

Photo by Walter Hoey, chief photographer, Daily Evening Item/Lynn, MA
Rear view of a triple-decker in Revere, MA, that burned out of control on Dec. 14, 1990, the fire set by arsonists. The 10-alarm blaze left 140 persons homeless. Five homes were destroyed and 12 more damaged. Four men were convicted, the last in December 1995. The case was cracked when a Labrador retriever, named "Sgt. Hulk," from the state Fire Marshal's Office traced accelerants in the ashes.

Hart, who supervises a team of Boston-based arson investigators, said the use of dogs capable of detecting accelerants is increasing nationally.

Massachusetts Fire Marshal Steven Coan noted that the speed at which canines are brought to the arson scene is also quickening. "The 31 troopers assigned to this office are working in rapid-deployment teams. They provide a quick and effective response," Coan said.

Robert Corry, a recently retired Massachusetts State Police lieutenant who was head of the fire marshal's arson squad, explained the strategy. "Whenever people set a fire, they inevitably splash accelerant on their toes and pants. That's why we bring the dogs in right away and search the crowd." As Corry put it, arsonists often enjoy watching the results of their handiwork unfold.

Because insurance companies are among the primary losers in arson cases, they have stepped forward to help law enforcement. For instance, State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., whose home office is in Bloomington, IL, and Aetna Life and Casualty Co., headquartered in Hartford, CT, have entered into public-private partnerships with arson investigation agencies, through which the companies fund the purchase of arson dogs and the training of their handlers. The ATF oversees the K-9 Accelerant Detection Program, providing guidance and technical support. The dogs are trained by the Connecticut State Police. The insurance companies foot the bill.

Massachusetts Public Safety Secretary Kathleen O'Toole said the insurance companies' participation with state programs has been invaluable. By funding accelerant-sniffing dogs as well as training their handlers, the companies have provided "vital tools to successfully investigate the crime of arson," she said, adding that the first of these dogs, "Sgt. Hulk," is credited with solving a 10-alarm fire in Revere, MA, by locating five spots in the ashes. The fire left 140 people homeless. Five homes were destroyed and 12 more damaged. Four men were ultimately convicted, the last in December 1995.

That the Revere fire was purposely set came as no surprise to regional arson investigators. Arson has been steadily increasing in the Northeast. Making arson arrests is tough, occurring in only 15 percent of all cases. Those who set fire to public or community buildings have a one-in-three chance of getting caught, while only eight of every 100 motor vehicles set ablaze result in an arrest. Experts say arson dogs could offset those statistics if accelerants were involved. But many criminals are using cellophane bags stuffed under the dashboard because, once ignited, they do the job virtually without a trace. According to Robert Tibbo, an arson specialist with the Holyoke Mutual Insurance Co., "The potato chip bag is fast replacing the can of gasoline."

James Butterworth, a former Connecticut State Police sergeant now employed by United States Fidelity and Guaranty, an insurance company, previously was in charge of the Connecticut dog-training program. He said dogs trained by the Connecticut State Police are placed with law enforcement agencies across the country. Nearly all Labrador retrievers, the majority of the dogs were purchased from the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown, NY.

Photo by Anthony DeLucia
Following an April 1995 fire in a furniture store in Ansonia, CT, the city's fire marshals called in the Connecticut Fire Marshal's Office and its dog to investigate the blaze. Here, the dog checks samples taken from the scene (the remains of the fire are in the background).

"They're all dropouts either too friendly or too high-energy," he said. "You can't be a guide for a blind person and be chasing squirrels on I-95 at the same time." Instead, Butterworth used that energy and friendliness to his advantage by turning the dogs into arson trackers certified by the ATF.

Butterworth's faith in Labrador retrievers is shared by William Tolhurst, a deputy sheriff with the Niagara County, NY, Special Forces Unit, who has spent more than 35 years training hundreds of dogs for police and fire departments.

Throughout the year, Tolhurst lectures at seminars and demonstrates dog-training techniques for departments in just about every state and in many countries. Although he prefers bloodhounds for tracking and cadaver work, he concedes the retrievers have performed well. "We have four 'labs' in Niagara County," he said. "We've had good luck with them. They've got the natural advantage of being a hunting breed. Why not make use of that talent?" Tolhurst said the Niagara County arson squad does not include state police officers, nor do operating procedures include a rapid-deployment strategy. "In general," he said, "you try to find cause and origin. Then you bring in the dogs to check for accelerants."

ATF Special Agent Richard Chase in Washington, D.C., former supervisor of the accelerant-sniffing dog program, said 48 dogs and handlers are trained and ready to respond nationwide. Most of the dogs now in the program were among the first group selected, and each has a workable life span of about seven years.

Chase said a feasibility study was done in 1986 to determine whether Labrador retrievers could be trained to detect accelerants. ATF Special Agent John Carpenter, in charge of the national program, said the study was the brainchild of two arson investigators. According to Carpenter, in 1979 dog handler Robert Noli, now an ATF special agent, was working for the New York Police Department bomb squad and Joseph Toscano was an investigator for the district attorney's office in New Haven, CT. "They're the ones who came up with the idea," Carpenter said. "Prior to that, there were no arson dogs that I know of."

Since then, the program has grown, with fire departments and other arson investigation agencies requesting dogs and handler training from the ATF's Arson and Explosives Division. "If they can demonstrate the need, we try to get them the dog," Hart said. "But the person has to assume a lot of responsibility. They've got to be able to respond to requests from other departments, including the ATF."

Hart made it clear that a dog can only be as responsive as its handler. "There used to be one dog in Massachusetts. If it was in the western part of the state and they needed the dog in the east, it could be four or five hours before the response came. Now, there are three dogs and Boston has a fourth. But even with that, the dog can only get there as fast as the request comes in."

Hart advised arson investigators to wait until the dog arrives. "It's best not to bring the dog in after several investigators have been in there all day disrupting the scene. Let the dog go in first," he said.

Carpenter offered similar advice. "We're trying to get the dog to the scene before the building is overhauled, but obviously after the fire is under control. Lots of times we get there and have the dog alert to items that the firefighters have already thrown out the window."

Although the dogs can cost upward of $5,000 each, and the handlers training even more, the insurance industry apparently believes it's small change compared to the millions of dollars lost annually to the arsonist's torch.

David Liscio, a Firehouse® correspondent, is a reporter for the Daily Evening Item in Lynn, MA, and a call firefighter in Nahant, MA.