The role of a fire investigation dog is in its most basic term, a tool to assist the fire investigation officer to ascertain if there is any liquid accelerant present at a fire scene.
The conviction rate for arson is very low, by its very nature fire destroys evidence, which can make the job of finding the cause and origin very challenging. Getting hard evidence to prove arson in a court of law is incredible difficult.
This is where the fire investigation dogs come in. Although they are no silver bullet they are by far the best way of finding if any liquid accelerants are present at the fire scene.
When carrying out a fire investigation a systematic approach must be adopted, part of that approach is to collect all the available data. For collecting data concerning liquid accelerants the dogs are the best tool available.
Should a fire dog indicate a find at an incident, alone this proves nothing, it is only a small part of the jigsaw that can help prove or disprove if arson was the most probable cause. The fire investigator will take the dog alert in to consideration along with all the other factual data that is available and using all this information form a hypothesis. Samples of where a dog has alerted are collected by crime scene investigators and sent to scientific labs for analysis.
A dog alert can give an early indication as to whether an accelerant has been used. But it must be used with caution, it is nothing more than a presumptive indication that accelerant may be present, it is the labs that give the definitive answer.
Should the labs results come back with an inconclusive result after a dog has indicated, this doesn’t mean the dog is incorrect, it just means the laboratory is unable to identify what it is the dog has alert on, since dogs can outperform the best scientific equipment in current use this isn’t surprising. But I also know that there are many produces in every household that will contain petro-chemicals that may cause a dog to give an alert, this doesn’t necessarily mean the dog is wrong it may just mean an innocent substance contains one of the dogs target substance.
The fire investigator using all their knowledge and experience will the come up with a likely hypothesis as to the cause of the fire. He will then test this hypothesis against every other possible likely cause and then come up with the final hypothesis. As with any hypothesis it is only as good as the data that it is based on, this hypothesis may change as new information comes to light.
But it’s not only at the fire scene the dogs can be used in an arson investigation, we also carry out route search’s, following the likely route an arsonist may have taken to an incident, this is to try and find a container that may be linked with an arson attack. Also property searches of a suspects houses and sometimes screen a suspects clothing on arrest.
Capabilities of a fire investigation dog
To prove the dogs capabilities we carried out tests by putting .02ml of petrol on a shirt washed it in washing machine at 40 degrees C then allowed it to dry naturally. Then using the dogs to screen the shirt along with six other shirts which went through the same process but without adding any petrol. The dogs were able to identify the shirt with the petrol on it and also indicate the precise location the petrol was put on the shirt. The GMS (gas mass spectrometer) just picked a reading up in the parts per trillion range.
Some of the benefits of using a fire investigation dog are;
- Dogs can detect accelerant in parts per trillion which is much smaller concentrations than any portable scientific equipment presently available.
- Dogs can accurately and rapidly detect the location of accelerant, which may reduce the time an investigator needs to spend excavating large fire scenes.
- The number of samples that require expensive forensic testing are reduced.
- Dogs can work on a cold fire scene many days after an incident.
- The use of dogs may deter would-be arsonists.
- A dog can to gain access to confined spaces.
- The dogs can be used to screen equipment prior to its use at an incident to prove it is clear of any liquid accelerant to help stop any cross contamination.
- A fire investigation dog/handler team is good for public relations in respect of arson prevention and community fire safety.
Another important role we carry out with the dogs is community engagement, in this role we find the dogs really help get a message across. By explaining the dangers and consequences of playing with fire we also show how the dogs help catch people who start fires deliberately. We’ve carried out numerous school assembles and by using the dogs as a hook we are able to engage with the children in a unique way. When the message we are telling them starts to fade, they never forget the dogs and by remembering the dog the message we have given them is once again remembered.
We have received a lot of positive feedback with this initiative and we are collating the statistics to try to quantify any success.