Wet nose sniffs out bomb danger

Trained canines help uncover perils for Md. fire marshal

January 02, 2001|By Robert F. Patrick | Robert F. Patrick,SUN STAFF

The state fire marshal's newest tool greets visitors as they come through the door of the bomb squad office at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Her name is Gilda, and her job is sniffing out explosives.

The black Labrador retriever gives everyone a good once-over with her nose, but she's just being friendly: It's a social, not a professional sniff.

Normally, she sniffs out explosive materials only when given a command by her handler, Deputy State Fire Marshal Steven L. Hatchett. "Sometimes they free-lance a little bit," he said, recalling a visit to another bomb squad office. Gilda was loose and kept returning to a drawer in a file cabinet where fireworks were stored.

The 3-year-old graduate of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms explosive detection training program has been on duty since late September and has traveled across the state on bomb squad calls.

In one recent three-day stretch, Gilda helped locate a pistol that was discarded by a shooting suspect on the side of Interstate 70 in Frederick County and headed to the Eastern Shore to check out a suspicious package outside the Wicomico County Detention Center. Then it was off to Southern Maryland, where she and Hatchett retrieved suspected military ordnance discovered in St. Mary's County.

Showing off Gilda's explosive-sniffing abilities for a visitor, Hatchett conceals a tablespoonful of the moldable white plastic explosive known as C4 in one of four metal tins in a rotating wheel, and gives it a spin.

The job of the knee-high dog is to sniff out the tin with the explosive and ignore the others, which are often filled with distracting scents such as gasoline or dog food.

Gilda gets it right on the first try, circling the wheel after it stops and sitting in front of the tin containing the explosive. Then she gets her reward - a handful of food.

Hatchett says Gilda is a food reward-trained dog, getting fed only after she successfully sniffs out explosives. On days when the bomb squad receives no calls, he must conduct a training exercise to feed her.

Gilda was the newest of three dogs to join the fire marshal's bomb and arson teams last year. The others are Isaiah and his handler, Deputy Fire Marshal Timothy S. Warner, who completed the ATF accelerant detection school in the spring; and Canyon and handler Michael S. Yingling, also a deputy, who graduated from the Maine State Police accelerant detection school in mid-September.

Although other bomb dogs work in Maryland - the state police has them at BWI and Baltimore, and many of the more populous counties have them - Gilda is a graduate of the most rigorous training program.

Rhonda Trahern, chief of the ATF's canine operations bureau, said the "amount and range of explosive odors" that ATF dogs are trained to detect are "higher than any other program."

Hatchett, 45, a former Baltimore police officer, said some of the more than 360 calls received last year were routine trips to pick up illegal fireworks, but that many involved investigation of suspicious packages.

Hatchett said Gilda was originally part of a guide-dog training program but either "washed out" or failed to develop rapidly enough. The federal agency receives many of the dogs that do not complete the guide-dog program.

ATF trainers taught Gilda to sniff out the odors of five basic explosives groups and to identify 20 explosives scents, such as gunpowder, plastic explosive and ANFO, the fertilizer-and-fuel oil mixture that was used in the Oklahoma City bombing. After that training, Hatchett joined her for a 10-week explosives detection training program beginning in mid-July.

According to the ATF, canine graduates are capable of detecting more than 19,000 explosives odors.

The agency provides the dogs and training on condition that they be available for duties on the ATF's national response team. Hatchett expects he will be called to Salt Lake City for the 2002 Olympics and has provided services for dignitaries.

Canyon is also a food reward-trained dog. At the training wheel, he gets it wrong at first and sits in front of a tin containing a decoy. The arson dog gets it right the second time, sitting in front of a tin that Yingling scented with two drops of gasoline, and bobbing his head to indicate the location of the accelerant.

At the scene of a suspicious fire, the dog's bobbing head points arson investigators to surfaces that are sampled and analyzed in a laboratory.

Yingling repeats the exercise several times, rewarding his 2-year-old black Lab at each success with a handful of dry food.

The trip to Maine and schooling for Yingling and Canyon were underwritten by State Farm Insurance Co., which owns the dog. After five years, ownership will pass to the fire marshal's office.

Hatchett's former dog, Misty, was put to sleep May 19 after getting cancer; the squad lost another dog to retirement earlier last year.

"I've never lost a child or a parent," Hatchett said, but losing Misty was "one of the harder things I've been through."

Gilda is not just a tool. When Gilda is off duty, she's like any other pet to Hatchett and his family.

Hatchett's stepdaughter had a sleepover recently, and he said Gilda was more interested in the girls and their sleeping bags than in spending time with him. But, he said, he gets plenty of quality time.

"I spend more time with the dog than with my own family," Hatchett said. "When it comes time for this dog to retire, I won't be too far from retiring myself."

The squad retires its dogs after five to seven years, so they have a few years when they don't have to sniff for their supper.

Until then, Gilda, Isaiah and Canyon have plenty of work.

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