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ANIMALS : New Breed of Fire Dogs Sniff Out Arson

June 29, 1995|KELLY DAVID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Fire Department's newest member seemed a bit confused by the brouhaha surrounding her new appointment as she recently went about her job inspecting a building that had burned down.

Her task: Determine the presence of flammable liquids at the scene.

That task usually takes an experienced firefighter several hours using a high-tech hydrocarbon-detecting machine.

But it took Flower, a 2-year-old black Labrador, less than four minutes to locate three dime-sized spots marked with a few drops of 50% evaporated gasoline.

Still, her handler, firefighter Frank Oglesby, thought she could do better.

"She was working a little slow," he said. "She can work a lot faster."

Officially known as an "accelerant-detecting canine," Flower is one of 46 arson dogs working in cities throughout the United States that were trained by the Connecticut State Police to detect even the slightest amounts of flammable and combustible liquids.

Hundreds of other dogs, trained privately or by the Maine State Police, are also at work investigating arson cases for fire departments and insurance companies across the nation.

Arson dogs are capable of detecting 17 chemically distinct flammable liquids that are called accelerants because they speed the pace of a fire. These accelerants range from gasoline, lighter fluid and turpentine to aviation fuel and lamp oil.

The California Laboratory of Forensic Science has verified that the dogs, which are certified by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, are able to detect amounts as small as five microliters--about one-fifth of a drop of water.

Many handlers say their dogs are even more acute than that.

"I've worked mine on one microliter, and that's the size of a pinhead," said Tony Guevara, an arson bomb investigator at the California state fire marshal's office, which has two arson dogs.

"The truth is that the dogs can go down to a level that the devices we have in the lab can't measure," he said.

Dogs' ability to pinpoint the location of accelerants not only saves time at the fire scene but saves the department money because fewer samples need to be taken to the laboratory for testing, Guevara said.

"They are the newest tool provided to arson investigation since the beginning of arson investigation," said Bob Noll, an explosives enforcement officer with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Noll earned the nickname "Mr. Canine" for his work in training one of the first accelerant-detecting dogs, Mattie, in 1986.

After working with dogs that sniffed out explosives on the New York City Police bomb squad, Noll felt certain that he could train them to smell accelerants as well. Dogs have also been used to detect narcotics at airports and border crossings, unearth slaying victims, track down escaped convicts, find missing or trapped people and even sniff out deer killed after hunting season.

But top veterinary scientists are still stumped by how a dog's sense of smell works, Noll said.

Once a dog is trained to smell one of the flammable liquids commonly used by arsonists, such as gasoline, it is automatically able to detect the presence of any of the 16 other liquids, even if it has never smelled them before.

"That's the mystery of it," Noll said. "Nobody knows how they do it. They just do."

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