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Accelerant Detection Canines - An Underutilized Tool

Accelerant Detection Canines (ADCs) were first introduced to the fire service in 1986 by James Butterworth and the Connecticut State Police. In actuality ADCs do not sniff for accelerants, they sniff for ignitable liquids. An Accelerant, as defined by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 921, is ?An agent, often an ignitable liquid, used to initiate a fire or increase the rate of growth or spread of fire?.(1) ADCs are often mislabeled as Arson Dogs. More appropriate terms to use would be Ignitable Liquid Detection Canines or Fire Dogs. For clarification purposes the industry accepted term Accelerant Detection Canine will be used for this article. %% (1) 2008 NFPA 921, Section 3.3.2 %% ADCs are a great tool for any fire investigator on any fire scene unfortunately there are many clich?s about the uses and misuses of these dogs. My hope is to enlighten fire investigators and insurance companies as to why ADCs should be utilized on most, if not all fire scene examinations, as these tools are not being utilized to their fullest capacity. %% I have been involved with ADCs since 1994, either as a supervisor or as a canine handler. I was the Chief Canine Handler for the Texas State Fire Marshal?s Office and I have handled an ADC for the government or in the private sector since November 1999. There are a few fire investigation companies who call for my services quite frequently. There are others who call me on occasion, but very infrequently. Based on my years of hands-on experience, through both the government and the private sector, these tools are not being utilized as often as they should be. It?s time ADCs become more than an afterthought to fire investigators. After a 20 year track record, fire investigators should be calling on these dogs on a regular basis. %% I know several state and local canine handlers who are dealing with these same issues. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) and State Farm Insurance have provided several Canine Teams around the country to governmental agencies. There are several here in Texas as well as Canine Teams from the Texas State Fire Marshal?s Office and several locally trained and privately owned canine teams. If an ADC Team is needed, one is not far away. You may only need to wait a few hours or even a day or two at the most. The wait is worth all you gain in your investigation. %% There are many excuses why the services of a canine are not called upon and I have heard my fair share. They include excuses such as, ?I could have used you, but I didn?t know you worked privately?; ?I almost called you but I could not find your number?; ?The next fire I suspect as being set, I will call you?; ?I would use a canine but they?re never available?; and my personal favorite, ?I haven?t had any fires where a canine was needed?. How does one determine if a canine is needed or not? Another reason many investigators give for not utilizing a canine is the inability to get approval from the insurance company. This last one gets into insurance companies dictating the way an investigator conducts their investigation. If a Fire Investigator needs a specialized tool or specialized expertise to conduct a complete and thorough investigation, should the insurance companies really be denying them the use of such tools? With that said, I can think of a few reasons why a Fire Investigator should call on an ADC. %% ADCs have been very successful in assisting fire investigators on fire scene examinations for several years now. Still, you must understand canines are to be used as a tool. A tool used in locating trace evidence of ignitable liquids. Let?s not make an ADC more than what it is. It is simply a tool utilized to help the fire investigator identify the best possible location to secure a sample. No more, no less. Should a canine give a final response, it does not prove or disprove an ignitable liquid was used in the commission of crime. Samples must be collected and confirmed by a laboratory to determine if ignitable liquids are present. A sample secured from a location where a canine gives a final response does have a higher probability an ignitable liquid will be present. Although, this is not to say that a sample secured from the location will always come back positive. %% NPFP 921 states ?If the presence of ignitable liquids is suspected, supporting evidence in the form of a laboratory analysis should be sought. It should be noted that many plastic materials release hydrocarbon fumes when they pyrolyze or burn. These fumes may have an odor similar to that of petroleum products and can be detected by combustible gas indicators when no ignitable liquid accelerant has been detected. A positive reading should prompt further investigation and the collection of samples for more detailed chemical analysis?.(2) Remember, NFPA 921 also states any canine alert not confirmed by laboratory analysis should not be considered validated.(3) And that canine ignitable liquid detection should be used in conjunction with, and not in place of, the other fire investigation and analysis methods.(4) Positive or not, the fire investigator must make the final determination as to whether or not to list the cause as incendiary. %% (2) 2008 NFPA 921, Section (3) 2008 NFPA 921, Section (4) 2008 NFPA 921, Section %% Recently an investigator who utilizes a canine on most of the fires he works called me. He was requested to conduct an origin and cause investigation of a fire loss in a residential structure. His client stated another company had worked the scene, but they were not happy with the work of the first fire investigation company and wanted another opinion. %% We arrived at the fire scene location and began our preliminary evaluation. I decided before starting our scene documentation, I would give my canine a break. Upon exiting the vehicle, he began sniffing around the yard, going here and there, just like any other canine would do. All of a sudden, he gave an alert and ran into the structure, going into the bathroom and giving a final response. We could not smell odor of any kind in the debris, but the canine had definitely indicated on something. %% I put him up temporarily as we started documenting and processing the fire scene. When I did deploy my canine throughout the day, he gave several final responses, in every room of the structure with the exception of one bedroom. On one occasion, he ran into the back bedroom and started digging through the gypsum wallboard and rolled insulation that had fallen from the ceiling. There was very little fire damage in this bedroom, but the ceiling and the insulation covered the floor to the extent that you could not see any part of it. After removing the material from the bedroom, we uncovered a textbook trailer. %% Samples were secured from each area a final response had been given by the canine, which were then submitted to the lab for analysis. We could smell gasoline in some, but not in all samples collected. After getting the report back from the lab, all collected samples contained the components of gasoline?or should I say evidence. I am sure the first fire investigator thought this case did not warrant the use of an ADC, or that it was too expensive to call for one. For all I know, he may have even called this an incendiary fire, but look at the evidence he left. Evidence that could be crucial to his investigation and it was just left behind. %% Another example was a case I was requested to assist with involving a two-story, single family residence. I called the local fire investigator to find out the status of his investigation and he told me his investigation was completed. He believed the fire started where the electrical service came into the structure and since it looked like an accidental fire he was closing the case. I began my preliminary examination of the structure to identify any safety issues. I noticed there was heavy damage to the electrical meter and service panel from the ground up through the eave of the house, the area of origin as determined by the local fire investigator. The fire burned through the eave and into the attic leaving heavy damage. There was heavy smoke and heat damage to the bedroom and bathroom on the second floor, but very little damage to the first floor. Continuing my preliminary examination of the structure, I noticed an unusual burn on the opposite side of the house which caught my attention. It was a small fire at ground level and I thought it may have been caused from drop down from the attic through the wall. I completed my preliminary examination and decided to give my canine a break before we began our scene documentation. %% Just like before, he went here, he went there, and before I knew it my canine had given an alert. He went to the side of the house where the little fire was, the fire I thought may have been caused by drop down and gave a final response at the base of the burn at ground level. We took a sample of the soil and pieces of the house siding. We could smell gasoline as we were taking the sample. I decided to go ahead and work the canine around the exterior of the structure. We worked our way around to the other side of the structure where the electrical meter was located and again the canine gave a final response. Another sample was secured and again, we could smell gasoline. (Both samples were submitted to the lab and both came back positive for gasoline.) %% I contacted the local fire investigator and asked him if he had utilized an ADC and he stated no, since the fire was obviously accidental, he did not see a need in requesting a canine. Needless to say, after I gave him additional evidence, he was back out at the fire scene to re-evaluate his initial investigation and cause determination. The fire was made to look accidental when, in fact, it was incendiary. The use of an ADC on this ?obviously accidental fire? would have given the fire investigator additional evidence and prevented him from calling it accidental when, actually, a crime had been committed. If the investigator had utilized all tools available to him at the time of the initial investigation, the fire investigation team would not have had to come back out to the fire scene and thus, would have avoided costing tax payers additional tax dollars. This is just another example of evidence being left behind. There are plenty others I could discuss here, but I believe you get the point. Remember, I am only one ADC handler with several of these examples. I know other ADC handlers who have had many similar experiences. %% Those responsible for cause determination, and/or denying claims or taking away someone?s civil liberties, have a duty and a responsibility to present all evidence available. The only way this can be accomplished is to utilize all tools available to the investigator to conduct a complete and thorough investigation on each and every fire scene examined. So I ask you: Did these fire investigators use all available tools in their toolbox to work these fires? %% We owe it to our clients, agencies, constituents and society itself to use every available tool at our disposal, so that when decisions are made about a case, it is based on all available information?not based on limited information, because a fire investigator did not do a complete and thorough investigation, leaving behind crucial evidence. I can give example after example where I have been behind fire investigators with my canine and found hard evidence either thrown out with the debris or just left behind unknowingly by the investigator. It has happened to me on the private side and on the governmental side. %% Not so long ago I attended a fire investigation training course, which was put on by a national company, with a well-known speaker. Our speaker has been in the fire business for 30+ years and as far as I know, still actively works as a fire investigator. The class was a typical fire training class, made up of experienced and new investigators, along with some fire fighters who were working towards their certification. %% Like any typical fire investigation class, our instructor drew on his experience to deliver the message he was trying to convey to the students. He discussed some of his investigations, but mostly focused on incendiary fires. Most of these fires involved ignitable liquids and on a few occasions (very few) he said he did utilize an ADC. He said he would call for one if a scene was a good candidate for the use of a canine. As I stated earlier, how does one determine if a fire scene is a good candidate for the use of an ADC? On several occasions our instructor was asked if he called for a canine, and time after time he said no. Once, he even stated he did not have time to wait on the canine. This is just inexcusable when there exists the possibility of denying a claim or putting someone in jail for a crime. %% During a class participation exercise, a student was discussing an incendiary case with the instructor. The student asked the instructor if he had called for an ADC, and the instructor replied that he had not. The student said he would have called on a canine for assistance, and the instructor responded by saying, ?you could have called for a canine, but I can guarantee you the canine would not have found anything, because I took 5 samples and they all came back negative from the lab?. For an instructor with 30+ years experience to make this kind of statement to students is truly incredible. Remember, ADCs are trained to located trace evidence of ignitable liquid, far beyond the capabilities of any investigator. I have been on fires scenes where investigators have taken samples before my arrival, only to have those samples come back negative from the lab. After having my ADC sniff the fire scene and give a final response, additional samples were collected which came back positive for ignitable liquids. %% I remember on three separate occasions during this class our instructor mentioned instances when a scene ?might be a good candidate for a canine?. All three were complete burn sites, otherwise known as black holes. I felt like he left the entire class with the impression that the only time to call for a canine was on complete burn sites. Once again?completely false! What concerns me most was how the instructor and the class in general, didn?t see the importance of utilizing a canine on obviously set fires or on any fire for that matter, with the exception of complete burns. What better way could there be to determine where to secure a sample then with the use of an ADC? Even if you think you know where to pull a sample, wouldn?t it be better and more reliable to secure the sample from where a canine gave a final response? %% I do agree that complete burns are good candidates for canine use. But, so are those fires scenes where the investigator feels an ignitable liquid may have been used, and also on scenes where the investigator thinks the fire was set, but is not sure if an ignitable liquid was used. And, as discussed above, what about the fire scene where the investigator believes the fire is accidental in nature or classified as undetermined? If it is an accidental fire, utilizing an ADC could help to identify whether or not an ignitable liquid may have aided the spread of the fire and/or support the investigator?s cause determination by helping to eliminate the presence of an ignitable liquid. %% Ask any fire investigator if they believe in using every tool available to them to reach a fire cause determination, and I bet you will not find one who will answer no. But if you, as a fire investigator, are not utilizing an ADC on most of your fire scenes, you are not utilizing every tool available to you. If you are working a fire investigation and determine it to be incendiary and your client, be it the insurance company or the government agency you work for, has to make a decision to deny a claim or take away someone?s civil liberties, you owe it to everyone involved to utilize all tools available -- including Accelerant Detection Canines. %% About the Author: %% Darle McClintock is a Certified Fire Investigator and Canine Handler and has over 30 years experience serving as a firefighter, fire inspector, fire investigator and/or canine handler, spending 21 years with the Texas State Fire Marshal?s Office (SFMO). During his tenure with the SFMO, he served as Director of Field Operations, Director of the Fire Investigations Division, Director of Fire/Life Safety Inspections Division and as the SFMO Canine Unit Chief ? Chief Canine Handler. He has 16 years experience working with canines, serving as a supervisor and/or handler since 1994. He is currently commissioned as a Texas Peace Officer through the Hays County Fire Marshal?s Office where he serves as a Fire Investigator and Canine Handler.