Dogs help fire officials determine whether arson caused a fire

Mae, a 3-year-old yellow Lab, gets calls from across the state

  • Mae, a 6-year-old yellow lab, works as an arson dog at the Howard County Fire Department.
Mae, a 6-year-old yellow lab, works as an arson dog at the Howard… (Gabe Dinsmoor, Baltimore…)
December 26, 2010|By Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

Like many dogs, Mae likes a good couch, long walks and a scoop or two of her Purina Pro Plan.

But unlike others, the 6-year-old yellow Lab can be called away from her warm futon to help fire investigators search charred debris for flammable liquids, helping to determine whether arson might be the cause of a blaze.

Mae is one of a half-dozen "accelerant" detection dogs in the state called out to fire scenes as far away as Cumberland or the nation's capital — sometimes as additional alarms are called for a structure fire and sometimes weeks after the debris has been soaked in heavy rain.

"At home she's a regular dog," said Lt. Dean Mulvihill, her handler and a fire investigator with the Howard County Fire Department. Although she is specially trained, she still disobeys occasionally, attempting to sneak people-food at home. But her "headstrong" personality makes her good at the job, Mulvihill said.

Together, the two report to about 50 fires to 60 fires a year in various jurisdictions. Each fire department differs on when they use a dog, but they typically call for Mae when there is a fatality, a large amount of damage or some reason to suspect arson.

Once at a scene, Mae and Mulvihill pore over the rubble. If she smells a petroleum-based accelerant, she reacts excitedly. Mulvihill will then collect a sample of the debris to be tested. Depending on where inside a dwelling an accelerant is found or how many different places it is found, those fires could be ruled arsons. But not all of her discoveries reveal criminal activity; Mae has come across a home where somebody was working on a motorcycle in the living room, and others where people store gasoline in their basements.

"They are extremely effective," said Deputy State Fire Marshal Bruce D. Bouch said of the dogs. "Their nose can be better than mechanical means. They are very good on the scene. There are very few [instances] when they are not effective."

Mae and Mulvihill have helped get arson convictions around the state, including in one of the highest-profile arson cases in Howard County, according to one police detective who worked on the case.

Mulvihill said the two searched a severely damaged home on Mink Hollow Road in Howard County after it caught fire on Halloween 2008. Mae picked up the scent of an accelerant throughout the home, helping investigators bring charges against Scott Daniel Wilson, whose criminal past spanned three decades and included setting fires in Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Howard counties and the Eastern Shore.

In 2007, Mae's first year on the job, two people were injured inside a Columbia townhouse when it caught fire. Her detection led to Scott Allen Pryor's conviction on arson and assault charges. He was sentenced to 63 years in prison.

When a five-alarm fire struck The Block, shuttering several adult entertainment businesses, Mae had been called for, Mulvihill said, but a bruised ear kept her from investigating. Instead, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives brought in two other accelerant-detecting dogs, which led fire officials to determine the flames were "set by human hands."

Although Mae did not make it to that call, she still had to practice her skills and more importantly, eat. Accelerant-detection K-9 dogs are only fed when they work or, if there are few calls, during brief training sessions — about three times a day for Mae.

Mae and Mulvihill completed a 5-week training course together in 2007 through a program funded by State Farm Insurance. The Howard County fire department spends about $3,000 a year for her food, vet bills and recertification fees.

At the county's Public Safety Training Center in Marriottsville on a recent afternoon, she leaped out of the back seat of Mulvihill's pickup truck with her tail wagging, wearing her "Accelerant K-9" badge. She recognized the training center building and trotted inside, where Mulvihill uses a "Daisy wheel" to train her. The wheel holds what look like eight one-gallon paint cans that hold different petroleum-based products, as well as one with gasoline or another flammable liquid. Mulvihill spins the wheel and Mae is trained to find the tin with the flammable liquid.

Quickly dunking her nose down, she passed cans containing a piece of carpet, a broken foam cup and even a cup of food to find the gasoline. Mulvihill grabbed a handful of food from a fanny pack around his waist as a reward and then spun the wheel several more times, repeatedly changing the location of the sought-after tin.

To keep Mae on her toes, Mulvihill often takes the wheel to an unfamiliar parking lot or a random field and use different items to test her.

When they aren't out on calls, Mulvihill assists with other fire investigations. While he does paperwork, she lounges on the office futon. It was meant for humans who were stuck working late nights but she prefers it to her kennel.

And when Mulvihill takes a vacation, so does Mae, since she must continue training.

After a long day at work, the two return to their Ellicott City home, where they have a third roommate, a dog named Lulu. Although Lulu has the freedom to eat when she pleases, Mae is pretty good about abstaining. However, Mae is not so different from other dogs when it comes to people food — left unattended, it is just too tempting. She's gained some weight on the job, and is up from 57 to 59 pounds.

"She's very bad," Mulvihill jokes, adding that she "chomps on anything," with her favorite delicacy being sticks. Mulvihill tries to walk her two to three miles several times a week so she stays fit, even though she's on a regimented diet. At night, she sleeps off a long workday in her dog bed.

"We are together the entire day," he said.

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