Investigation assistance

SPI Fire Department debuts arson detection K9

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — Arson investigator Ashley Bowen strategically began placing a couple of covered tin cans in a row on the floor.

Some of these cans were empty and others contained a small amount of gasoline.

Liberty, South Padre Island Fire Department’s recently-acquired accelerant detection K9, patiently waited nearby for Bowen’s command.

After placing the last can on the floor, Bowen made eye contact with Liberty and began repeating the word “seek.”

Upon hearing this, the nearly 2-year-old golden retriever immediately stood up and swiftly began identifying which cans contained gasoline by touching each one with his nose. 

As Liberty continued to correctly identify each can that contained gasoline, Bowen rewarded him with a treat and a congratulatory “good job.”

Along with speakers from the State Farm Insurance Agency, South Padre Island city and fire department officials introduced the newest member of the city’s fire department team earlier this week.

According to Bowen, South Padre Island Fire Department’s arson investigator, Liberty will be a free regional asset to fire departments across South Texas and will provide additional help in keeping communities safe.

Liberty will assist during arson investigations in 17 counties from Cameron County up to Nueces County in Corpus Christi.

Bowen said Liberty is able to differentiate between scents and find accelerants they’re looking for during fire investigations.

“It’s absolutely amazing what accelerant detection K9 noses can smell,” Bowen said. “For example, if Liberty and I were to go to a friend’s house and they were making pizza, I would just smell pizza, but he would smell every individual ingredient in that pizza from the crust and sauce to the toppings.”

The process

Through its Arson Dog Program, State Farm has provided financial support for more than 400 dogs and their partners in 45 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces since 1993.

“For us, it’s an opportunity to provide the level of commitment that we have as an insurance company to the community,” said State Farm Public Affairs Specialist Felicia Van Frank. “Hundreds of lives are lost and billions of dollars are spent on property damage annually because of arson, so we want to make sure that we do our part in combating arson.”

The South Padre Island Fire Department received a $25,000 grant from State Farm’s Arson Dog Program in 2017.

That covered the cost of acquisition, travel and training for an accelerant detection K9 and its handler.

Every dog selected for the State Farm Arson Dog Program is pulled from humane societies and local rescues.

Prior to his arson detection training, Liberty was a seeing-eye dog in southeastern Florida and eventually crossed paths with Bowen.

During Bowen’s two years of training, two dogs she was working with failed the arson detection course.

But together, Bowen and Liberty completed 200 hours of training through Maine Specialty Dogs’ training school.

“Ashley stepped up to take on this responsibility knowing that it was going to be years and years and would involve daily trainings,” said South Padre Island Fire Chief Doug Fowler. “So it’s a very large commitment and very admirable of her to take on such responsibility.”

Liberty and Bowen are one of eight currently working accelerant detection teams in the state.

They are the only accelerant detection team in the area and Bowen is the only female handler in Texas.

“I’ve always been a dog lover and I think it’s just amazing that I have this K9 that now relies on me and I can rely on him,” Bowen said with a smile after Liberty’s successful debut.

24/7 commitment

Bowen said Liberty will permanently reside and work alongside her.

In his free time, Liberty enjoys swimming, playing with his toys and running around the yard with Bowen’s other dogs.

However, when Bowen’s training pouch is strapped around her waist, Liberty knows it’s time to get to work.

“At home, he gets to hang out on the couch, and be a dog and then when we come to work, we work,” Bowen explained. “So, he gets the best of both worlds in a sense because he’s with me all of the time.”

Bowen said all in all she couldn’t ask for a better partner than a dog.

“It’s been a long process to get here and I am so honored to have him,” Bowen said. “There are not many in the country and I feel extremely lucky to have him here so I look forward to a great future.”

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW

• The State Farm Arson Dog Program has provided financial support for the acquisition, travel and training of more than 400 dogs and their partners in 45 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces since 1993.

• Canines and their handler are required to complete 200 hours of training.

• Accelerant detection canines are trained to sniff out minute traces of accelerants such as gasoline and lighter fluid.