Emergency Services

Accelerant Detection Canine Team

Coal, the accelerant detection dog who had served for many years recently reached his end of service and retired. Allegheny County remains committed to its accelerant detection canine team and is actively pursuing identification of a new handler and purchase of a canine which can be trained through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms program. The process can take 6 months to a year, but we are still equipped with numerous tools to aid in investigations.

Want to learn more about accelerant detection canines? Read on…

In 1986, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) conducted a feasibility study into using canines to detect accelerants used in arson fires. This study identified the unique training methodologies and protocols necessary to train canines in accelerant detection. The first accelerant-detecting canine was trained by the Emergency Services Unit (Canine Section) of the Connecticut State Police and the BATF. The BATF began a training program for accelerant-detecting canines for use by state and local police and fire departments in 1989. Each dog is certified by BATF through its national laboratory and requires that the canine and its handler be recertified yearly.  The Allegheny County canine team receives four additional certifications each year under the direction of the Allegheny County Forensic Laboratory.

Various breeds can be trained in accelerant detection, but the Labrador breed appears to be the breed of choice, mostly due to their calm disposition and excellent noses. The breed is not as important as evaluating the dog's nature, ability to learn and willingness to work a fire scene. The characteristics of the dog are carefully evaluated before the dog is accepted for training.

A properly trained Accelerant Detection Canine is a valuable tool to assist the investigators in locating evidence of an ignitable liquid as well as assuring the proper decontamination of tools and equipment at fire and explosion scenes.

There are other methods used by investigators to take samples. Hydrocarbon detectors, mechanical detection devices, have been used for years. They are a good tool, but have drawbacks. One drawback is that they do not discriminate between normally burned items in fire scenes that are made from petroleum products and items that might contain an ignitable liquid. Today's fire scenes contain a large amount of petroleum based products. Plastics, polyurethane foam chair cushions as well as carpeting are all petroleum-based products. Properly trained Accelerant Detection Dogs are taught to ignore these normal pyrolysis products and concentrate on finding volatile liquids. It can also take a long time to search a large area of burn damage with a mechanical detection device. What might take an hour with a hydrocarbon detection device will probably take only minutes with a trained accelerant detection canine. 

Accelerant detecting canines are trained to give a "passive alert" when they encounter any trace of a flammable liquid. This alert consists of the dog sitting and pointing their nose at the point of strongest concentration of the accelerant detected, then looking to the handler for reward. The area is marked for evidence gathering and the dog is then rewarded with food. The dog's unique ability is reinforced daily by having to hunt for samples placed by the handler before feeding.

Another method used to take samples involves training and experience. The investigator will take samples from areas that correspond to burn damage consistent with an accelerant pour pattern. They can be successful doing this, but not nearly as successful as using the trained dog.

Along with being faster, a good dog should also cut down on the number of samples taken. It costs about the same amount of money to have a single sample analyzed, as it does to have the dog work an average fire scene. Also, a big advantage of the dog is the prescreening of samples before they are sent to a laboratory. After the dog alerts in the scene, samples are taken and placed in a line-up (often called a line of discrimination) consisting of at least three other samples of similar fire debris. The dog is then used to search the line-up. If it alerts to the sample, the sample is sealed and shipped it to the Allegheny County Forensic Laboratory for analysis. If the dog fails to alert to the sample, investigators go back inside and expand the sample area. This method has greatly increased laboratory confirmation of submitted samples. This process saves tax payer dollars by sending in fewer samples. The samples that are submitted should have a higher percentage of success.

Another situation where the dogs are invaluable arises when there is no visible pour pattern. In some fires, the damage is so severe it obliterates burn patterns. Accelerant canines can conduct a search of the area to eliminate the use of ignitable liquids. Some scenes contain un-ignited pours of ignitable liquids, and accelerant detection canines can effectively discover this type of evidence as well.  For example, there have been occasions, where investigators have used dogs to search rooms of a building with no visible signs of fire damage and had canine alerts of raw gasoline. Sometimes there just isn't enough oxygen and the fire goes out in its early stages. Other times the fire is extinguished by the Fire Department before it can communicate to the areas where the ignitable liquid was poured.  Accelerant detection canines are successful in serving investigators on these scenes as well.

In situations where expert witness testimony is conflicting, evidence of an ignitable liquid will hold great weight. Canine evidence has been well received by courts throughout the United States. On those occasions where the dog alerts and the samples come back unconfirmed, the handler may testify as to their opinion regarding the alert of the dog.

It must be remembered, that utilizing an Accelerant Detection Dog Team does not replace the need for an Origin and Cause Investigator. The dog is only a tool, but experience has proven that a properly trained dog is the best tool available to find trace evidence of ignitable liquids.

Canines are able to perform this valuable service because their olfactory systems differ from that of a human's in three ways:

  1. Odor Lock
    In humans the brain decreases or eliminates the stimulus of an odor after approximately 10-15 minutes. This is true whether the odor is present for five minutes or five years. The canine olfactory system can “brain lock" onto the odor and the stimulus remains as long as the canine searches.
  2. Olfactory Direction Location 
    The human sense of smell is conveyed to the brain by the olfactory nerve and generally is capable of only detecting whether or not an odor is present. The canine brain is able to detect which nostril has the greatest concentration of a scent. If the stronger concentration is in the left nostril, the dog knows to move to the left, and vice versa. When the concentration of the scent is equal in both nostrils, the dog knows that whatever they were searching for is right in front of them.
  3. Odor Layering 
    When humans enter a fast food restaurant, they are usually able to smell hamburgers and fries. The canine is able to smell the meat, the pickles, the onions, the mustard and even the vinegar used to make the ketchup and the oil used in frying the French fries. This is the reason drug smugglers are unable to mask the scent of drugs with coffee grounds or other distracting scents.

This tremendous sense of smell, which humans cannot duplicate or even fully comprehend, has afforded law enforcement and fire officials a valuable tool in the fight against arson fires nationwide. Arsonists using accelerants will quickly discover that these "canine detectives" are their worst enemy. Many have been arrested and convicted with evidence discovered by accelerant-detecting canines and many more will be in the future, thanks to this program pioneered by the Connecticut State Police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.