This month I am highlighting our three extraordinary arson dog teams located in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It makes total sense that the state tree and flower is the DOGWOOD given the incredible work that arson canine teams do throughout the state! Whether it is locating evidence to put arsonists behind bars or meeting with children and civic groups to talk about fire safety, these handlers and their amazing canine partners are tremendous assets to the residents of Virginia.
Division Chief William “Chip” Hart – Spotsylvania County Fire, Rescue, & Emergency Management (Spotsylvania, VA)
K-9 Samantha (April 1993 – 2006 as secondary handler)
K-9 Wyatt (September 2006 – current)
The State Farm Arson Dog Program began training handlers and canines in early 1993. Spotsylvania County Fire & Rescue has been there since that first year. Deputy Fire Marshal Philip Sullivan was partnered with the department’s first arson dog, K-9 Samantha, during training class #2 in April 1993. Philip and K-9 Samantha served the department for twelve years. It was also during this time that Chip Hart gained experience as an arson dog handler, first as the secondary handler for K-9 Samantha and then as the primary handler for the department’s current arson dog, K-9 Wyatt.K-9 Wyatt is an eight year old Goldador (golden retriever/black Labrador mix) who works alongside Chip during fire investigations. K-9 Wyatt was originally trained through a seeing-eye dog program near Detroit, Michigan (making him a Motown dog) but like many of the dogs in the State Farm Arson Dog Program, he had too much energy and food drive to be an effective service dog. K-9 Wyatt and Chip met on the first day of training class in Maine and after five weeks of training, they graduated and were certified as a team in September 2006. Since that time, K-9 Wyatt and Chip have investigated over 300 cases in northern Virginia. Wyatt was recognized for uncovering an IED made of gasoline and LPG tank at an arson fire. The IED was placed in a lower level room with the intentions of maiming or killing firefighters while battling the blaze. Thankfully the IED failed to function.
Investigator Jesse Gomes – Hampton Division of Fire & Rescue (Hampton, VA)
K-9 Taylor (September 2008 – current)
The Hampton Division of Fire & Rescue in Hampton, VA also has long history with the State Farm Arson Dog Program. Investigator Mike Gabany investigated fires for the City of Hampton and the surrounding area with two arson dog partners; K-9 Ruger and K-9 Zorro. When Mike and his K-9 partners retired, Investigator Jesse Gomes and K-9 Taylor began investigating suspicious fires in 2008.
Investigator Gomes is a certified Fire Investigator, Fire Inspector and Medic firefighter with the City Of Hampton in Virginia. Jesse and K-9 Taylor partnered in Alfred, Maine were they were certified in late 2008. Taylor, a Lab mix came from Michigan, she was born in May 2007. The team trains three times a day, responds to approximately 160 fires annually, and conducts fire safety education demonstrations at city schools. Jesse is also responsible for a fire district where he inspects more than 270 structures for fire code violations so there is a great deal of work that needs to be done and he couldn’t do it all without the help of K-9 Taylor. In fact, they have recovered more than 200 confirmed samples of accelerants at arson fire investigations in and around the City of Hampton. That is why Jesse refers to K-9 Taylor as “The Best Tool in his Tool Box”. K-9 Taylor lives with Jesse and his family that includes 2 children and her canine buddy Zoe, a Doberman.
Investigator Len “Archie” Archer – Richmond Fire Department (Richmond, VA)
K-9 Ellie (May 2010 – current)
Captain Mike Martin with the Richmond Fire Department had an amazing career with his canine partner, K-9 Bailey. Mike and Bailey investigated fires in and around the City of Richmond from August 1998 until K-9 Bailey retired in the spring of 2010. She passed away in November 2010 following a nearly 12 year career. During that time, Chief Martin and K-9 Bailey investigated hundreds of suspicious fires and talk so many children about the importance of fire safety. When K-9 Bailey retired, she passed the leash to a new team; Len Archer and K-9 Ellie.
Len Archer is a member of the City of Richmond Department of Fire & EMS. Certified as a fire investigator in 2004, he became a certified accelerant detection handler in May 2010 when he graduated from arson dog training. His canine partner, K-9 Ellie, is a female black Labrador born on September 9, 2009. Like most of the dogs trained through the State Farm/Maine Specialty Dogs program, Ellie didn’t start off as an arson dog. She was acquired through the Florida Leader Dog Program where she was being raised and trained to be a guide dog for the blind. Instead, Ellie had the right stuff to be a law enforcement dog because of her high energy level and strong prey drive. Since her certification as an accelerant detection canine in 2010, K-9 Ellie has served her community by conducting over 300 investigations and assisting with 25 investigations for county/jurisdictions surrounding the City of Richmond. Len is very proud that the evidence found by K-9 Ellie, nine (9) arsonists have been convicted! It isn’t all work for Ellie though. Len and Ellie are very popular on the demonstration circuit and have made over 35 public appearances before an estimated 15,000 people to teach about fire prevention and show how impressive her investigation talents are.