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K-9s, some of them rescues, help keep Ohioans safe from arson, explosives

Posted at 4:29 PM, Jan 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-24 20:05:16-05

PARMA, Ohio — All across Ohio, highly-trained K-9s help keep the public safe every day. Not only can they help solve crimes, but they can also prevent them in some cases.

They find what humans can’t, from accelerants to electronics, assisting investigators in their work. Some of them are rescue dogs or dogs who dropped out of other working dog careers.

Jeff Koehn, an investigator for the Ohio Division of State Fire Marshal, works with Connor, a yellow Lab who was a rescue in Dayton. He’s now an accelerant detection K-9, helping Koehn find “gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene, cigarette lighter fluid, charcoal lighter fluid, anything used to start or accelerate a fire.”

On Friday, Connor and three other dogs and their handlers demonstrated their abilities inside a burn building at Cuyahoga Community College’s Western Campus in Parma.

A spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Commerce, Brian Bohnert, explained that working dogs for the State Fire Marshal’s office, like Connor, all have attributes in common, whether they’re rescue dogs or purebreds.

“We’re looking for a huge hunt drive, a good food drive, and a personality that will match with the public,” Bohnert said, noting that the office starts its searches by looking at rescues but that it’s “luck of the draw” whether a rescue has the traits needed.

Some of the dogs are dropouts from other working dog careers. Theo, a black Lab, trained for two years to be a seeing eye dog, according to his handler, Lieutenant Gordon Thompson of the Painesville Township Fire Department.

“He didn’t make it because he’s too social,” Thompson said.

Now, though, Theo is owned by ATF and works with Painesville Township as an accelerant detection K-9, where his work is invaluable.

“The dog can find things that we won’t see and we definitely don’t smell,” Thompson said.

When Theo finds the accelerant he’s looking for, he sits. Thompson then rewards him with praise and food and asks him to “show me.” Theo then puts his nose on the highest concentration of the accelerant, allowing investigators to collect a sample to send to the laboratory.

It’s not just about accelerant detection, though. While some dogs are used in arson investigations, others can be used for explosives or for electronics.

“Cell phones, hard drives, computers, SD cards, micro SD cards, anything that holds memory,” Beth Crano, an investigator with the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, said of the items her dog, Diana, is trained to detect.

Crano said Diana is trained to sniff out a chemical in the protective layer of electronic devices.

“If someone has contraband like child pornography, they’re going to store it on an electronic device, and so that’s why we have her, so she can help us find it,” Crano said.

Diana was a stray who was picked up to be a medical alert dog, but Crano said that didn’t work out because she gets too excited when she finds what she’s looking for. This line of work, as an electronic scent detection K-9, suits her better, as she’s found more than 300 devices investigators missed on about 100 search warrants.

“It breaks my heart that she was a stray, but I’m so proud of her that she was able to do this and show that strays can be awesome dogs and are awesome dogs,” Crano said.

Another dog the State Fire Marshal uses is a German Shepherd named Rena, who can detect explosives both pre- and post-blast. Her handler, investigator Ron Stemen, said she’s from the Czech Republic, where she has a long family history in this kind of work.

“We’re able to protect all Ohioans, obviously from any explosive threat, whether it’s pre-events or dignitary protection or it’s a bomb threat,” Stemen said of Rena’s skills. “We also work in conjunction with a lot of local police departments as well as BCI and places like that, to recover evidence after shootings.”

Rena can find guns, shell casings and bullet fragments, among other things.

“She’s looking for the explosive odor,” Stemen said. “So when she finds a gun, she’s looking for the smokeless powder that’s been in the gun. Same way with exploded items after a post-blast scene. She’s looking for the explosive that remains on the items that have been detonated.”

Stemen said Rena has been in service since March of 2019, and last year she made 95 finds.

“Hopefully we never find anything, but we found everything from explosive to evidence at a homicide scene,” Stemen said.