As the tragic events at Osbaston House in Shropshire in 2008 showed, fire fighting can be as much about the forensic detective work after the event as fighting the fire itself.
Statistics show that over 55% of fires are started deliberately, as an act of arson. One of the most highly sensitive pieces of forensic detection equipment in discovering if a fire was started deliberately is – a wet nose! Highly trained sniffer dogs are capable of detecting even the slightest traces of accelerant have an invaluable role in establishing cases of arson.
Since a dog’s sense of smell is hundreds of times more sensitive than a human’s, dogs can be trained to sniff out the presence of eleven types of accelerants. Even up to 20 days after an incident, an experienced accelerant detection dog can sniff out even tiny traces of petrol, lighter fuel, or paint thinners.
Dogs offer many advantages to hard-pressed fire investigations teams, as they can detect flammable fuels with much more accuracy than electronic field devices. A dog can quickly search a large area both effectively and efficiently, and pin-point areas for further investigation or sampling. Dogs are also unique in that they can differentiate between hydrocarbons created by illegal arson attacks, and those produced in a ‘normal’ fire.
Fire Sniffer Dogs
One of the early heroes in the world of accelerant detection dogs was Nelson, whose finely-honed skills were used in over 150 incidents for the Cornwall County Fire Brigade, resulting in five convictions. The Service now employs his rescue-dog successor, Charlie, whose handler Richard Gibbons explained how the dogs were initially trained.
“Charlie and Nelson have both undergone a strict training regime. This starts with basic retrieval training, using plastic pipes and cotton wool soaked in petrol. These are hidden in various places outside. We then take this process indoors. The dogs then have to learn not to get excited when they find an indication, but just to sit next to the area. This stops any evidence being destroyed. The final stage is direct dropping of partially burnt liquid”.
All accelerant detection dogs are trained for two months, before being sent for certification at the Fire Service College at Moreton on the Marsh. Once in service, they return every year to the College to ensure their sniffing skills are up to scratch. Not all sniffer dogs are rescue dogs; some are bred for the role. Sam the Springer Spaniel, an East Sussex Fire Investigation Dog, comes from a line of working detection dogs; his father is an explosives dog and his mother a trained detection dog.
Accelerant detection dogs are only taken to the scene of a fire after the fire is fully extinguished, and the area has cooled down. All detection dogs wear special boots to protect their paws while they are working, plus a protective harness and line. Once their job is done, often their reward for such incredible work is nothing more than a game with their favourite tennis ball – which they love.
Accelerants are all too readily available in our homes, garages and garden sheds, so make sure that your flammable liquids are stored safely, preferably in a locked metal cupboard in your garage or shed. It’s a good idea to keep a small fire extinguisher near the cupboard too; a 1kg or 2kg domestic ABC powder extinguisher from Fire Protection Online is ideal.