At first, there was the whiff of a prank in the air: It seemed the newest member of the Spokane Valley Fire Department arson squad was only an expert in rolling over for belly rubs or gnawing on his leash.
But then Mako went to work.
On Monday, before rolling television cameras and bemused guests, the 18-month-old black Labrador dashed in a zigzag, nose to the ground. Whether it was a rag soaked in gasoline, or a coffee can with a hint of acetone, Mako would stop dead in his tracks to let his handler, fire investigator Rick Freier, know he was on to something.
Snapping up a treat as a reward, it was just another day’s work for the talent behind the department’s new Arson Dog Program.
|Mako, using his nose for trouble, is the newest member of the Spokane Valley Fire Department’s arson investigation team, which includes handler Rick Freier.
Photo by: Mike Huffman
“Labs are chosen for their good nature and willingness to work,” Freier said before putting Mako through his paces. “They also have the ability to differentiate between scents.”
Mako and Freier recently returned from Alfred, Maine, from a five-week training session sponsored by State Farm Insurance. The dogs learn how to maneuver around obstacles and discriminate between scents of different types of accelerants typically used in starting fires. Mako now has the ability to quickly pinpoint the location of accelerant residue, even if it has already burned or evaporated.
It’s the kind of attention to detail that can save fire investigators days of work, said Fire Chief Mike Thompson.
“We really want to thank the board of commissioners for giving us the OK to move forward with this,” he said.
Also thanked were representatives of State Farm, who picked up the $28,000 tab for Spokane Valley’s program. Mako was just one of five dogs in the country that participated last month in the training.
Insurance companies, however, do – so to speak – have a dog in this hunt. Thompson said that in 2009, 47 percent of the fire calls his department responded to were caused by arson, resulting in $1 million in damage. Across the country, those types of calls have can add up to $12 billion in property loss each year.
Since 1993, State Farm has paid for the training of more than 250 arson dog teams in 43 states, three Canadian provinces and the District of Columbia.
Freier said the training is highly disciplined and a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year commitment.
“Mako only eats when he finds a scent,” he said, adding the pair train every day at different times and locations.
“Good thing my wife likes Labs,” Freier added.