Technology can’t replace low-tech snouts

By Susan Schrock, Fort Worth Star-Telegram — 

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — With the ability to detect an estimated 19,000 explosive chemicals, the Arlington Fire Department’s seven specially trained Labradors have a nose for trouble.

Arlington has the second-largest explosive detection canine unit in North Texas, behind Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The dogs are frequently tasked with sweeping venues, such as Cowboys Stadium and Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, for bombs and firearms before major events and visits by dignitaries. The grant-funded dogs and their handlers are also called to help investigators across the region search for tossed guns or spent shell casings linked to crimes.

But only the newest member of the team, a yellow Lab named Jasper, is trained to spot would-be suicide bombers. Known as a vapor wake detection dog, Jasper can track the scent of an explosive being carried or worn by a person, even in a crowded area like a mall or a sports venue.

“They will follow the trail. They will take you right to the person that has explosives on them.” Assistant Fire Marshal Stephen Lea said. “The others won’t do that.”

Fire officials showed off Jasper and the other dogs’ abilities to some City Council members recently during a tour of the team’s new Main Street office downtown.

Arlington, which has one of 468 bomb squads nationwide, also added a smaller explosive ordnance disposal robot this year that not only can climb stairs and pry open vehicle doors but also can maneuver through houses and apartments to retrieve bombs.

“It is designed to keep us out of harm’s way,” Deputy Fire Marshal Darin Niederhaus told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ( “We would rather damage a robot than an individual.”

The Fire Department’s six other canines are trained to ignore odors coming from people, which makes sense because they typically work with peace officers carrying firearms, Lea said. They concentrate on searching vehicles and buildings.

Vapor wake canines are taught to find and follow an odor trail even when the person carrying or wearing explosives has passed through 10 to 15 minutes earlier.

The dogs, trained by Auburn University, are used by agencies including the U.S. Capitol Police, Amtrak and the Transportation Security Administration, according to the school. Arlington plans to add more vapor wake canines as its other dogs retire.

Lea called vapor wake dogs like Jasper a crucial resource in the fight against terrorism.

“If we have a large venue someplace and we have a threat that there is a suicide bomber, my canines now would be sniffing stationary cars,” Lea said. “These dogs give us the ability to work inside crowds. As we get more of them, we can do more of that.”

Arlington bought its first explosive detection canine, Brickman, in 2006. The department bought Jasper to replace Brickman, who retired in January and lives with his handler.

The cost is about $130,000 per canine, which includes the dog, the training and a vehicle to carry the dog. Vapor wake dogs cost about $40,000, compared with about $17,000 for the other canines, Lea said.

The canines go through training daily, which can include searching through piles of luggage or sweeping local warehouses and offices for deliberately hidden explosive compounds while ignoring distractions, such as food, that have also been hidden.

When a dog finds a suspicious odor, it sits to alert the handler. The dog is then rewarded with a treat, like getting to play with tennis ball or a rope toy.

“They will work for hours just to play with that ball,” Lea said.

Arlington isn’t the only city that benefits from the grant-funded canine team. The FBI, the Secret Service, the Texas Rangers, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and law enforcement agencies as far away as Stephenville have called on the dogs for help.

Assignments have included a bomb sweep in 2008 when President Barack Obama, then a candidate, campaigned in Fort Worth.

Arlington’s dogs were also used to search the crime scene when Kaufman County Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse was gunned down in January near the county courthouse.

“We get used all over the state,” Lea said.

Arlington recently spent about $421,000 renovating the former Fire Resource Management Facility at 403 W. Main St. to create a larger space for the fire prevention and explosive ordnance disposal team office.

The city now has enough equipment and personnel to form two response teams in case more than one emergency situation arises, Riley said.

Jasper isn’t the team’s only new addition.

Arlington bought a remote-control explosive ordnance disposal robot for $243,119 with Homeland Security grant funds. The robot, equipped with four cameras, has both tires and metal tracks, which help it climb stairs and other inclined surfaces.

It can also be outfitted with cable cutters, cordless drills and various saws to cut through walls or into vehicles to access explosives, Assistant Fire Chief Brian Riley said.

Using a claw, the robot can pick up objects such as unattended bags or pipe bombs and place them inside a “total containment vessel” for transport to the city’s bomb range.

The city’s first explosive ordnance disposal robot, bought with grant funds in 2006, is too large to fit through interior doorways.

That means the bomb technicians have sometimes had to retrieve suspicious objects.

“If we can send a robot in first, we will,” Niederhaus said.

The department also has a smaller robot for tasks such as checking under vehicles.

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