Arson Dog
Recycling has gone to the dogs — fire dogs that is!
The recycling yard dog is seen in a new light at American Auto Recycling in Gilbert, Arizona, where an unusual visitor is welcomed a few times a month. This four-legged visitor has played a significant role in helping the community. Thanks to the team at American Auto Recycling, she will continue to get the training she needs to continue making the difference.

Spring, is a two-year old black English Labrador, who is one of Gilbert Fire Department’s investigators. She is trained to work alongside her handler, fire investigator David Zehring and can detect numerous accelerants that may have been used to start a fire. Zehring says it’s important to be able to use facilities such as American Auto Recycling for training so Spring can train using different accelerants.

“It’s important to train Spring on cars that are not necessarily on fire because it gives her a chance to find the different accelerants that might have been used to start a fire,” said Zehring. “I train her for real life situations and if we suspect someone of using an automobile to transport an accelerant, Spring is used to see if she can pick up the scent in any part of the car. She goes through the entire car because there can be a trace of accelerant on various parts of the car.” The most common places to find accelerant are on the door handle, gear shift, steering wheels, and mats, and in the trunk.

“American Auto Recycling was gracious to offer their facilities to us for training,” says Zehring. “We train there about twice per month and they have been a great partner in helping us to provide real life training opportunities for Spring. While we are there, I may run her through 12 cars but only put an accelerant in three or four of them because I don’t want her to associate a certain car with a certain accelerant. We also use different accelerants in each car to keep things mixed up and challenging for her.”

Spring is trained on a drop of accelerant, so Zehring says they make sure they do not damage the cars they are using for training. He says it’s also been beneficial to use the auto recycling yard because there are a variety of smells in the yard. “Spring can pick up many different smells at the same time,” said Zehring.

“If you went to a movie theater you would pick up the smell of popcorn but Spring would smell the nachos, popcorn, candy, plus all the other smells you don’t pick up on. It’s the same when we take her out on a fire scene. She has been a great tool in alerting when she smells an accelerant and giving investigators a place to look for evidence. She helps the human investigators piece together the puzzle of how the fire started.”

Since starting in January, Spring has already worked ten fire investigations. Recently she worked on her largest fire scene yet which involved a strip mall and a church in the neighboring town of Peoria. She was able to help investigators gather 33 pieces of evidence and determine that there had been multiple fires set throughout the building. Spring worked for eight hours on this case and saved investigators what would have been three days of trying to find evidence.

Spring is rewarded with food, so she must work in order to eat. That means no holidays or sick days for her or for Zehring either. Every day he must “work her” at least twice a day so she can get her food.

Spring is certified through the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and requires re-certification in five areas; cars are just one that ATF chooses to test her on. She and Zehring are part of an arson team that is the product of a partnership between Gilbert and the ATF, and is one of about 58 such teams deployed around the country.

Mark Buessing, American Auto Recycling, says he feels it’s rewarding to give back to the community.

“So many Fire and Police Departments are looking for a place to train and we are happy to work with the local authorities to provide a realistic training venue,” said Buessing. “We’ve been working with the Fire Department since 2003. We create a staging area and give them newer type cars that might have technical requirements they need to train on. This also gives them a chance to use their equipment like the ‘jaws of life’ on cars before we crush the cars. We even set the cars upside down for them to better simulate accidents.”

Buessing said Spring and Zehring are the first arson team to train at their facilities. “Our team here is happy to help out with their training and we really feel that we are playing our part to help the local authorities be the best trained they can be; which benefits the community as a whole.

“Each year we have several Cub Scouts troops come in to earn their Recycling Badge and watch cars get crushed and view the operations,” says Buessing, “but this is the first time we’ve been able to see an arson dog in action. It’s amazing to see how a cute playful dog that seems so friendly, can get focused and ‘all business’ when it comes to finding the scent in the cars. It’s been a good partnership and I would encourage other recyclers to do the same if they haven’t.”

Zehring agrees, and says he has already encouraged the other arson dog team members that he trained with from all over the country to reach out to their local auto recyclers to see if they can use their facilities to train and hopefully establish a strong partnership like American Auto Recycling and the Gilbert Fire Department share.

Michelle Keadle-Taylor is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia and a regular contributor to Automotive Recycling magazine.

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