Published in the Devon Dispatch on February 6, 2014
Arson suspects have confessed to their crimes and insurance companies have saved millions of dollars, thanks to the help of trained dogs such as two-year-old labrador Sam, of Devon’s Rae-Tech Fire Investigations Ltd.
Rae-Tech is the only company in western Canada that has a dog to help investigate the origins of fires as part of their full-time staff
Sam is a valuable team member, trained to sniff out and detect ignitable liquid such as gasoline within mere seconds.
Sam trains six days a week with Rae-Tech owner Robert Eyford and employee Gord Mellor, in order to be ready when duty calls.
Rae-Tech investigates the origins of fires mostly for insurance companies and private corporations in western Canada such as Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. The company has also investigated fires as far south as Arizona and as far east as Wisconsin, averaging 10,000 kilometres of driving per month. Trustful Sam is right by their side wherever they go.
Eyford and Mellor demonstrated a few of Sam’s training exercises for the Devon Dispatch on Monday, Feb. 3 at the Dale Fisher Arena.
For one of their exercises, five wooden blocks were lined up against the wall and only one block was tainted with a single drop of gasoline.
As Mellor brings Sam in, he sniffs a few blocks, but immediately directs his nose towards the block tainted with gasoline, indicating to Mellor that this is the block he’s looking for.
Upon finding the accelerant, Sam sits to indicate he’s found an odour he has been trained to find.
When Sam sits, Mellor pulls out Sam’s most prized possession, a tennis ball and throws it across the room for Sam to catch as a reward.
The jubilant dog runs off, catches the ball and gnaws on it to his heart’s content. His tail wags non-stop. His joyful nature makes him the right type of dog to train for fire investigations.
“You have to work hard to hurt his feelings,” Mellor said.
Eyford added a single drop of gasoline on cotton pads and hid them in larger spaces-in the locker room and among the seats in the arena.
Having been trained since September, Sam knows exactly what his handlers want and upon entering the locker room, he heads for the back wall right where the cotton pad has been hidden.
“You can see how, when we’re searching a fire scene, how much time that saves us, rather than shoveling, searching, trying to figure out where something [an accelerant] could be put,” Eyford said.
“Just put the dog in [the room] and within minutes, we know if there’s an accelerant in there or if there isn’t.”
Sam is a huge timesaver, saving his clients a lot of money, Eyford explained. Among the seats in the arena, Sam sniffs the ground and seems eager to find the source of the odours. After searching a few rows at the top, Sam returns to the bottom seats and finds the cotton pad underneath the step and another pad stuffed in the hole of the seat higher up.
Since Sam can smell scents humans never will, Mellor has trained himself as well, to watch and guide Sam as he follows the odours, and not to pull him off or distract him as a handler. He’s learned to trust the dog.
During investigations, when Sam detects a spot where there have been traces of ignitable liquids, a sample is taken and sent to a laboratory to identify the substance.
Trained dogs like Sam can detect accelerants even months after a fire has occurred, when the odour has completely disappeared for the human nose.
Without trained dogs that can detect accelerants among huge piles of burnt material, it’s a lot more difficult for investigators to determine the cause of fires or provide evidence that arson had taken place.
For example, when there is nothing left but ashes and the dog identifies multiple locations where there are ignitable liquid odours, investigators can extrapolate those locations onto a sketch showing the layout of the rooms.
This can often show that someone poured ignitable liquids in different rooms or in a line down a hallway.
“You can sometimes see wherever the arsonist walked, because there was a pour in every room,” Eyford explained.
If the dog finds accelerants on the floor leading up to the door, what does it mean? Eyford asked.
It’s then up to them to take that evidence and apply it to the investigation. Sometimes ignitable liquids are in homes for legitimate reasons. They need to determine that during the investigation.
One interesting case involved a fire investigation in B.C., where the restaurant owner’s ex-husband was a suspect. The police spoke with him, but he denied any involvement.
The police borrowed his shoes for testing and lined the shoes up in the hallway, much like the wooden blocks used in Sam’s training exercise.
The pair of shoes, which the suspect claimed never to wear, was the same pair that the dog always chose, no matter where the police placed them in the lineup.
Seeing the dog constantly indicate that specific pair, the suspect confessed to the crime.
“There’s a real need for a dog on staff. Sam’s the man,” Eyford said.