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Fire dog Dexter working in a typical fire scene.

Canine assets

Since the first fire investigation dog in the UK appeared in west midlands fire service in 1996 dogs have increasingly become an integral part of the modern fire investigators tool box. Just as they would reach for a screwdriver the dog can be deployed to search for ignitable liquids.

Why does this matter? At present within the UK there is no crime of accidental fire setting so it is down to the investigator to provide evidence to the police that the fire in question was started deliberately. One way of achieving an early indication of this is for a fire investigation dog to give an indication of the presence of ignitable liquids therefore giving the investigator strong evidence that can be confirmed in a laboratory.

From the very beginning it has always been acknowledged that dogs have a far greater sense of smell than humans. This has led to dogs being used to search for all manner of different scents from explosives and drugs to firearms and cash. In recent years, they have also proved successful in identifying cancer and illegal tobacco.

Currently within the UK there are approximately 17 fire dog units funded by individual fire services or across a region funded by all the services within it. There are also private contractors who offer their services predominantly to the insurances industry. Within the fire service most dogs work to the Home office guide to best practice which was issued in 2002. This includes an annual licensing test carried out to confirm that both dog and handler are meeting the required standard. In recent years, several dog teams have turned to the police dog schools for training and licencing thus providing substantial training records which can be made available to the courts if required.

Early search dogs were trained to locate and indicate the presence of any liquid capable of being set on fire using a naked flame. These searches would take place within the fire scene following the extinguishment of the fire.

Once the dog has identified an area it was down to the Crime scene investigator (CSI) to recover a viable sample which could be sent to the laboratory for testing.

As more handlers pushed the boundaries and with the help of researchers from universities it became apparent that the dogs could also be used to assist with an investigation by searching in other areas such as the suspects house or clothing and even getaway vehicles and open areas away from the scene.

This has led to the modern fire investigation dogs regularly being deployed to assist in a fire investigation by carrying out several searches in different environments all connected with the same incident. For example, following a fatal fire in Leicester in 2014 a fire investigation dog was deployed at the scene within two hours of the fire and gave several indications in the front doorway of the property giving the investigation team a strong indicator that this was a deliberately set fire. In the following days eight males were arrested on suspicion of murder. The dog was deployed to search all of their addresses, vehicles and items of clothing for evidence. All eight were subsequently found guilty, two of murder and six of manslaughter.

Dexter indicating ignitable liquids on a curtain removed from the fire scene.

Dexter indicating ignitable liquids on a curtain removed from the fire scene.

Having come from a proven background the modern fire investigation dogs are certainly a force to be reckoned with. They are deployed regularly across the UK at fire scenes and in assistance of the police to continue the investigation. Most are also trained for deployment at height from ladders or Arial platforms as well as confined spaces and boats. Personal protective equipment (PPE) has also advanced with rubber soled boots, harnesses and life jackets becoming regular items of issued kit. Even full body coveralls can be worn by the dog in order to cut down on the risks of contamination if required. Modern dog handlers are well versed in the procedures required to avoid cross contamination including carrying shower units on board their vehicles to decontaminate the dog as well as different boots and harnesses. In the modern age where even trace fibres and layered DNA can make all the difference in an inquiry it is right to acknowledge that this is an issue but there should also be an acknowledgement that steps can be taken to mitigate the occurrence of it. If we don’t accept that there becomes a point when the contamination is no longer there then every time a dog gives an indication at a scene or indeed an investigator enters a scene where ignitable liquid is detected, then they would have to retire and train a new dog.

Throughout my 15yrs service as a fire investigation dog handler I have continually been confronted with the argument as to which is the better dog or machine. This has included the use of Photoionization detectors (PIDs) at scenes instead of a dog using the argument that it is cheaper to maintain the electronic device than a dog team. I have taken part in many academic experiments where attempts have been made to answer these questions.

For me it is the question itself that is at fault. Dogs should not be seen in competition with the laboratories or hand held devices, but as an aid to getting the best results. There are points both for and against the use of each. The main advantage of the dog is that of speed. (a dog can cover larger areas quicker).

Currently in the UK legal system an indication from a fire dog or a hand-held device, is not sufficiently strong enough evidence to put to a jury that an ignitable liquid was present at the scene. The indication still needs to be supported by a forensic scientist’s interpretation of the tested sample before a positive result can be obtained. Although for me this should remain the industry standard it has led over the years to a situation where a dog will indicate at a scene and the sample taken will record negative in the laboratory leading to the argument that the dog has found what the machine can’t and vice versa.

In America, there have been several cases where the courts have accepted the evidence of the dog as 100% accurate and juries have convicted based on it.

During a recent murder case where petrol was identified at the scene, I was tasked to search a vehicle identified as the getaway car. My dog gave a clear indication in the boot. Had I been asked in court has your dog been trained to find petrol and did it indicate in the boot of the vehicle, the answer would be yes to both questions, possibly leading the jury to conclude the petrol had been found in the getaway vehicle. However following laboratory testing the sample was identified as being diesel, had the dogs evidence alone been accepted a possible miscarriage could have occurred.

One of the biggest challenges that face potential fire dog handlers is not necessary that of training the dog but of learning their trade. There are multiple combinations of ignitable liquids in the modern world and part of the handler’s role should be to give advice and assistance to investigations regarding the context of the location of any indications given by the dog. An example of this would be the dog indicating on a set of draws within a bedroom containing nail polish remover or the bubble within a spirit level which could contain alcohol. The modern dog and handler teams have come a long way from those early days in West Midlands and should now be seen as a great resource with, the potential to be a strong asset to the fire investigator and senior police investigating officer at any fire investigation.

For more information, email dcoss@derbys-fire.gov.uk

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Dave Coss joined Derbyshire fire service in 1992 rising to an operational watch manager before training the first regional fire investigation dog in 2003. Is currently working his third dog (Dexter) and Attends around 200 fire investigations per year. he regularly gives advice and training in arson cases and is an associate lecturer at University of Derby.

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