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No bones about it: State Farm's Arson Dog Program trains and funds accelerant-detection dogs to sniff out fraud.

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In 2007, Howard County, Md., Fire Department investigator Dean Mulvihill and his K-9 partner, Mae, uncovered evidence to convict Scott Allen Pryor on arson and assault charges after two people were injured inside a townhouse when it caught fire. Pryor was sentenced to 63 years in prison.

Arson now is the source of one-quarter of all U.S. fires and is the second-leading cause of residential fire deaths.

One insurer is trying to sniff out that growing problem with the help of man's best friend. In 1993, State Farm launched its Arson Dog Program to help stave off billions of dollars in property damage and hundreds of lives lost from fires set by arsonists. Since then, the nation's largest homeowners carrier has paid to train more than 250 dog and handler teams in 43 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces.

"This is an important service to communities and shows we are out there working in those communities," said State Farm spokeswoman Heather Paul, who works closely with the program. "We're able to support local police and fire departments and engage them in their community outreach."

The program trains the four-legged friends to help investigators pinpoint the location of accelerant residue, such as gasoline, kerosene and lighter fluid. The K-9s can discriminate among scents at the fire scene so investigators can collect fewer samples for lab testing, which, in turn, reduces those costs.

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Teams must complete a five-week training course and are trained and certified through the Maine State Criminal Justice Academy and must be recertified annually.

Handlers are selected from local/county/state law enforcement agencies and fire departments based on factors such as their fire load, support from local departments and cities and at least a five-year commitment to the program, Paul said.

State Farm helps acquire the dogs from guide dog associations, humane societies and local breeders. In addition, the carrier funds the training fees; room and board during training; certification by the chemist and the Academy; and reimbursement for travel to and from the training site.

Paul said Labrador retrievers are typically used as arson dogs because of their tracking ability, ease of training, sociability and strong work drive. The K-9s are trained on the food reward system, she said. "When a dog sits and indicates an accelerant has been detected, the dog is fed by hand as a reward. If the dog isn't working a fire scene, he or she is trained several times a day for their feeding."

Allentown, Pa., Fire Department assistant fire chief Lee Laubach, and Judge, the department's first arson detection dog, recently completed State Farm's training program. Judge can detect more than 60 different fire accelerants in minutes and "has helped fire marshals numerous times uncover items they wouldn't have found by any other means," Laubach said. "It cuts down time to look for accelerants and evidence needed for prosecution." While it's hard to put a price tag on State Farm's funding to the department, he estimates it is between $18,000 and $25,000.

Teams also are responsible for providing community outreach programs and educational seminars on fire prevention and safety. "There's been a significant increase in arson by juveniles, so if we can get out there and talk to kids and young adults about these tools, hopefully it will get them away from these crimes," Paul noted.

Insurance fraud costs the property/casualty insurance industry about $30 billion a year, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Fraud adds about $200 to $300 annually to insurance premiums paid by the average American household.
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Title Annotation:The Last Word
Author:Chordas, Lori
Publication:Best's Review
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Words:601
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