Fire investigator getting help from 4-legged friend

Posted Dec. 21, 2008, at 9:26 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:04 a.m.
Scott Richardson and his dog Metro.
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY DIANA BOWLEY
Scott Richardson and his dog Metro.

SANGERVILLE, Maine — Metro’s eyes will melt your heart, but it’s her nose that will get you.

The 14-month-old black Labrador retriever, who has been trained in the detection of carbon-based accelerants, is the latest addition to the State Fire Marshal’s Office. She is the first dog trained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to be used by the department.

“She’s going to cut the cost of insurance fraud in the state,” investigator Scott Richardson, Metro’s handler, said Thursday. Insurance companies have to cover fire losses, and unless arson can be proved, those losses bump up insurance costs for everyone, he said. “She’s going to help me be a better fire investigator.”

Richardson returned last Saturday from six weeks at the Front Royal Training Academy in Virginia, where he trained with Metro 10 hours a day, seven days a week. Within two weeks, both handler and dog will be deputized as U.S. marshals and as such will be part of ATF’s “national response team.” That designation will require Richardson and Metro to participate in cases throughout the country at ATF’s request.

Even before arriving in Maine, Metro received praise. “She has been a great dog right from the beginning, and she went through her training as the star pupil in her group,” State Fire Marshal John Dean said Thursday.

Metro was in a program called “Puppies Behind Bars” and raised by an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., a federal prison for women. While the identity of the inmate who raised Metro is unknown, Richardson knows the love the inmate poured into the dog from a journal she kept. It was the fourth dog the inmate raised from a puppy, he said, suggesting that her sentence was a rather lengthy one.

About 90 dogs and their handlers are trained by ATF each year at the Virginia training center at no cost to the local and state agencies, according to Richardson, who has been in law enforcement 26 years. All of Richardson’s expenses were borne by the federal government. In addition, the veterinarian expenses and continued training are paid for by ATF, he said.

The ATF, in turn, has strict regulations regarding the dog’s care and training that must be followed by her handlers. For example, Richardson said, he must brush Metro’s teeth every other day with a beef- and chicken-flavored toothpaste and train her every day, since she is a reward dog. Metro does not eat from a bowl but from Richardson’s hand, and only after she successfully completes her training. That training involves the dog detecting nine accelerants ranging from rubbing alcohol to gasoline, he said. In addition, records of Metro’s performance and health must be submitted each month to the academy.

Metro will join Shasta, a black Labrador provided to the State Fire Marshal’s Office by State Farm Insurance Co. The insurance company’s dogs are trained in Maine and are provided free to the office to help deter crime and reduce insurance losses, according to Dean.

Dean said his office wanted to participate in the ATF program because the agency works closely with ATF. “We share an office with them in Portland, and they share our office in Bangor,” he said. In addition, both agencies cooperate on fire and explosion cases and have a memorandum of understanding. When the ATF agent in charge of Maine and Dean decide a case is a fire and explosion task force case, the federal government pays for overtime, he said.

Richardson, who had a K-9 while working for other law enforcement agencies, and Metro will make a good team, according to Dean. “Scott has a lot of experience,” he said. “He’s a good person to have the dog and he has a shining star for a dog, so I expect she’s going to earn her keep and she’ll give us some good years.”

Metro will stay with the Richardson family, which includes Scott’s wife, Lisa, and their children, Cassie, 9, Michaela, 14, and Ryan, 18. His family, Richardson said, has fallen in love with the dog. “She’s just a pet until she goes to work,” Richardson said.

“The first week they gave me a tool [to investigate fires], but by the end of that first week, she was like a child,” Richardson said.

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