New fire investigator has a nose for arson cases

Two-year-old Emily loves walking into San Diego Fire-Rescue Station One. She knows she’ll receive lots hugs, kisses and an occasional belly rub. The station isn’t just a place to visit, it’s her office and second home. Emily, a black Labrador Retriever, is an Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) trained arson dog.

“I guess the proper term would be an accelerant detection canine,” said San Diego Fire-Rescue Engineer and Arson Investigator James Shadoan. “Anything that is a flammable liquid that can be used to excel a fire, poured on a fire to make the fire grow, Emily will be able to alert and detect it.”

Emily and Shadoan have been together since late 2015, after being partnered at the ATF’s 10-week canine explosive detection training program. They are members of San Diego’s Metro Arson Strike Team (MAST), which includes San Diego Fire, San Diego Police, ATF and the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

“What she can do, no machine can do, no piece of equipment can do, no human can do,” said Shadoan. “Basically, she can tell me if an accelerant was used and she can tell me that day or that night of that fire. Where with a crime lab, it’s months later, six months later or sometimes even longer.”

In addition to identifying accelerants, Emily has been trained to detect explosives, explosives residue, firearms and ammunition hidden in containers or cars, on people and buried underground.

“Having Emily on scene, you almost get an automatic read on if an accelerant was used on the fire. Which, of course, helps us determine if it was arson or not,” said another member of MAST, San Diego Detective Sergeant Joe Sharponis. “It saves us an enormous amount of time, being able to identify right away, quicker than later, if any arson occurred.”

It is repetitive training, in different environments, that makes Emily a highly-skilled member of the MAST team. Her training is vastly different from that of a police dog. Emily is a food reward dog, versus a play reward dog. Basically, she works to eat and she receives a set amount of food every day. In order to get a handful of kibble at a time, she has to detect an accelerant and alert to it.

“She is getting literally over 100 alerts a day, or feedings a day,” said Shadoan. “When she does what she’s supposed to do, she alerts. She will be fed, that’s her reward system.”

Emily’s work goes beyond sniffing around burned-out buildings. She’s been a resource for the Police Department, Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies around San Diego County.

“She’s been used in cases as high as homicides, where victims have been killed and set on fire,” said Sharponis. “Emily has been able to come in and determine that there is an accelerant used on that scene.”

Because she is one of only two arson dogs in California and one of a few dozen throughout the United States, Emily and Shadoan are also members of the National Response Team (NRT).

“She can work anywhere in the nation,” said Shadoan. “She can get called out anywhere, any time.”

And that means Shadoan is called out as well. Having an arson dog is a 24/7, 365-days-a-year commitment for Shadoan and his family. A recent vacation included not only his wife and kids, but Emily as well.

“It takes a ton of my time and I’m adjusting to that. My family and I, we’re adjusting to it,” he said. “She is worth every penny of it.”

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