Fired up to find clues

Team: Iris, a black Lab, and her handler, Doug Wilson, are arson investigators for Anne Arundel Fire Department.

March 29, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County's newest arson investigator doesn't get to eat until she's found a clue. She works in a jurisdiction where arsons average two a week, but Iris won't starve.

The dog's handler, investigator Doug E. Wilson, ensures that.

Every day, he takes the Labrador retriever to the training academy in Millersville to sniff out gasoline and fire-starting chemicals in cans and cars, piles of clothes and stacks of shoes. She gets scoops of dog food when she finds a trace of an accelerant.

"Sometimes someone from the office will try to slip her a doughnut," Wilson said. "But she has no interest. ... She knows how she gets fed."

The pair graduated last week from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms dog training facility in Front Royal, Va., where Iris reportedly aced all the tests.

Yesterday, County Executive Janet S. Owens introduced the 2-year-old black Lab as the newest Fire Department recruit - an addition made possible through a regional ATF task force.

Iris, the county's first accelerant-detecting dog, wears her investigator's badge around her collar.

She is the fourth arson dog to work in Maryland. The others are in the state fire marshal's office and in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

"Arson is one of the hardest crimes to prove," said Anne Arundel Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds Sr. "Iris will help tremendously."

The dog was raised by a couple from Edgewater for Guiding Eyes for the Blind Foundation. Although she was trained as a guide dog, Iris didn't make the final cut because she hesitated in certain stressful situations, such as rush-hour traffic. But tests showed that she was ideal for chemical detection.

When it's time to find an accelerant, Iris doesn't hesitate. "I'm glad to see her back in Anne Arundel County - helping local residents," said Mark Powell, 42, a property line surveyor who with his wife, Rosana, raised Iris for about a year from the time she was 6 months old. "She's a local dog."

For the Powells, the hardest part about training Iris was knowing that they would have to give her up. "My wife and I constantly had to remind ourselves there was a larger goal, a bigger picture," Mark Powell said.

Iris is likely to work as an accelerant dog until Wilson, who has been with the department for 27 years, retires in about seven years. On Iris' last day, Wilson will put a bowl of food in front of her with no strings attached. For the first time, Iris won't have to find gasoline or starter fluid.

But Wilson said he's been told by other dog handlers that Iris won't know what to do. "She gets her meals and treats by working," he said.

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