Fire investigation dogs play important role in determining if arson has been committed. Their skill at detecting the presence of ignitables at a scene is invaluable to investigators as they can find the source of a fire that could otherwise go undetected.
There are a total of 39 fire brigades operating across the UK with over 22,000 full-time fighters, but (as of 2013) there are only 17 fire dog units spread across all brigades. For instance East Anglia only has two fire investigation dogs in a unit which covers a wide area of Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Essex, and Suffolk.
Many more fire dogs work with private firms who assess scenes for insurance companies.
How fire dogs are used on investigations
If arson is suspected by the responding fire brigade, or if a fire happened in suspicious circumstances, a Fire Investigation Search Dog is called to the scene to help gather evidence.
When the fire is completely put out, free of smoke, and deemed safe, fire dogs search the area for accelerants. These are ignitable liquids and solids, like petrol, white spirits, or lighter fluids.
Fire dogs are trained to sniff out up to thirty different accelerant substances, many of which are odourless to humans. If the fire was caused deliberately then fire dogs help determine exactly where the fire started.
Once the dog finds a potential starting point of the fire they are trained to stop and stare at the spot as a signal to the handler. The dog is rewarded with treats for each successful find. A sample is then removed for detailed analysis at a lab to determine which accelerant was used.
Fire dogs can sometimes be called upon to further assist an investigation by searching a suspect’s house or clothing to gather evidence against an individual.
English Springer Spaniels and Labradors are the most common breeds to be trained as fire dogs thanks to their keen sense of smell and natural obedience.
It’s their highly sensitive smell that gives fire dogs an edge even over electronic field equipment. Fire dogs can detect the subtle differences between hydrocarbons naturally produced during high heat combustion, and hydrocarbons introduced in intentional fires which even modern technology struggles to differentiate.
A well trained canine companion can massively reduce investigation time as they are able to easily and quickly detect flammable sources through rubble and debris, speeding up the excavation process. As they are able to pinpoint sources they also reduce the number samples needed for forensic testing.
Fire dogs are often chosen when they are puppies and are secured from breeders of working gun dogs.
While they’re puppies training focuses around basic obedience such as walk to heal, sit, and stay. If they excel in this area the puppies are then moved onto early search training. This involves finding tennis balls in a wide range of environments with a number of distractions to train the dog to keep focused.
If they succeed in search training they’re moved onto initial liquid identification which are the common accelerants the dog will come across at fire scenes.
Training times vary, but on average it takes six to eight months for a dog to be fully trained as a fire investigation dog.
Like all working canines, fire dogs have a strong bond with their handlers who work closely with them in training and the field. Annual assessments take place for the dog and their handler. The dog is tested on their general obedience skills, ignitable liquid identification, and finding sources of accelerants. Handlers are tested on their control of the dog, their knowledge of canine care, and if the handler and dog can work effectively as a team.
When searching a fire scene, fire dogs wear a uniform consisting of:
- A high visibility harness
- Protective boots to protect from broken glass and debris (not too unlike the Rukka dog boots we sell warn by Finland’s human rescue unit)
Fire dogs are never sent onto scenes that are still warm. Fire officers will make sure the scene is ‘cold’ before the fire investigation team is sent in. This is why their equipment is lightweight and non restrictive.
Fire dogs retire between the ages of seven and eight, but some skilled canines work longer if they showing willing and are passing their annual certification tests.
Like general purpose police dogs, fire investigation dogs often stay with their handler once they retire.
image source: https://www.london-fire.gov.uk/