New fire investigator has floppy ears, tail

Posted: December 13, 2012

The Winchester Star

Walker is the newest member of the Frederick County Fire Marshal’s Office. The 19-month-old Labrador and golden retriever mix graduated Friday from a 12-week training course.
Lt. Mark Showers of the Frederick County Fire Marshal’s Office introduces his new partner, Walker, on Wednesday. The two recently completed ATF training to help the black Labrador-golden retriever mix detect ignitable liquids — useful in suspicious fire investigations.

WINCHESTER — Walker may look like your average pup — long awkward legs, smiling eyes and excited to play — but he’s not just any pet.

The newest member of the Frederick County Fire Marshal’s Office is a 19-month-old black Labrador-golden retriever mix with a nose for accelerant.

Walker graduated Friday from a 12-week Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives training program in the detection of a wide range of ignitable liquids.

“The addition of an accelerant- detection canine will help reduce the overall time involved in investigative activities,” Fire Marshal Jay Bauserman said in a media release.

Lt. Mark Showers — Walker’s handler — said a suspicious fire would require investigators to analyze burn patterns and try to pinpoint the place where an accelerant may have been used.

Walker can sense the accelerant through just about any scenario and alert investigators to where it was used.

“You can go to a fire scene and just know in your gut that an accelerant was used and then just scratch your head to try and find [it],” Showers said, adding that a dog can go right to the source.

The acquisition of the dog was made at no cost to the county. Showers said he attended a six-week training course with Walker and signed an agreement with the ATF — which essentially owns the animal.

Showers said he has had the dog for six weeks and three days and that the two quickly become friends.

“He’s with me 24/7 and at home he’s just a regular dog,” he said Wednesday, glancing down at the sleeping pup.

Walker came from Smithtown, N.Y., where he was bred by and for the Guide Dog Foundation.

Showers said that on occasion, the foundation doesn’t need all of the dogs that are bred and then tests and trains them in other areas — ultimately landing Walker in the ATF’s hands.

The Fire Marshal’s Office filled out an application for an accelerant canine about two years ago, according to Showers.

“I love dogs and watching dogs work is one of my passions,” he said, noting why he chose to be Walker’s handler.

Walker and Showers’ ATF training took place in a variety of settings, including schools, vehicles, fire scenes, office buildings and parking lots.

The dog was taught to detect ignitable liquids through scenarios ranging from construction blocks to clothing and burnt wood.

Showers said he expects to use Walker fairly often, and that the ATF and other jurisdictions can call on them for assistance.

In addition to helping with investigations, Walker will be available for demonstrations by request for schools and community events.

And though Walker has not experienced his first call, Showers said he is eager to work with him.

In the meantime, he trains every day with Walker — rewarding him with food for a job well done.

“When the food pouch goes on, he’s a totally different dog — he’s ready to work,” Showers said.

Training, the officer said, is only limited to one’s imagination. “You have to keep it exciting for the dog.”

Walker is one of about 60 accelerant-detection canines in the country, Showers said.

The officer and Walker will re-certify yearly with the ATF.

The dog’s working life will be about eight years — after which he can retire.

At that point, Showers said, he plans to adopt him.

— Contact Melissa Boughton at mboughton@winchesterstar.com