Suffolk County Fire Marshal Brett Martinez and his specially trained canine partner Jewel conducted a training session on arson investigation for firefighters Sunday morning at Riverhead Fire Department headquarters.
Jewel, a 9-year-old labrador retriever, is trained to detect accelerants at fire scenes.
Martinez demonstrated for the 67 firefighters who attended the training how Jewel does her job.
“He had an accelerant in one of the cans and on an article of clothing, and the dog picked it out every time,” First Assistant Chief Kevin Brooks said.
“It was good for firefighters to get some exposure to how the dog actually works and what to expect if a K9 is brought to a scene,” Brooks said.
Firefighters also received training in arson awareness and scene preservation, he said.
“We try to preserve the scene every time,” Brooks said. The town fire marshal responds to structure and other fires to investigate and determine their cause. “It’s important not to destroy potential evidence.”
Martinez explained what his procedures are when he arrives at the scene of a fire and demonstrated some of them for the firefighters.
Jewel is one of two trained accelerant-sniffing canines in the Suffolk County fire marshal’s office, Martinez said. The dogs and their handlers are trained by the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms at the agency’s training center in Virginia. The dogs are trained with a food-reward system, Martinez said. Jewel is his third K9 partner.
Martinez and Jewel are part of the elite ATF national response team, which has just 60 specially trained K9 units nationwide.
“There are more quarterbacks in the NFL than there are trained units in the national response team,” Martinez noted.
Martinez has been part of a K9 unit since 1991. He was involved in the investigation of a fatal Harrison Avenue fire set by an arsonist in 1994 that claimed the lives of five children sleeping in second-story apartments. The arsonist poured gasoline on the stairway leading to the apartments and set it on fire, trapping the occupants inside. Three adults were able to escape the blaze by jumping from windows, but neither neighbors nor more than 70 volunteer firefighters were able to reach the children, ages 6 months to 12 years. The man who set the fire was convicted of murder and arson; he remains incarcerated in an upstate prison.
The memory of that deadly fire scene will always stay with him, Martinez said.
He’s also worked with prior K9 partners on counterterrorism cases involving incendiary devices.
Riverhead Police have two K9 units, he said. Suffolk PD has 16 K9s, at least six of which are trained to detect explosives, Martinez said.
Only labrador retrievers are trained to work fire scenes, according to Martinez.
“We use labs exclusively for this line of work because they have all the benefits of patrol dogs, like German Shepherds, but they are not agressive,” he said. “Fire scenes are often very chaotic. When a scene is chaotic, a patrol dog will do what it’s trained to do, first and foremost, to protect its handler.”
The fire marshal’s dogs all come from the Guide Dog Foundation of Smithtown, Martinez said.
Martinez, who is also a volunteer firefighter in Hauppauge, where he lives, once lived in Riverhead and was a member of the Riverhead Fire Department.
Jewel will be retired in July, when she turns 10, the mandatory retirement age. She will continue to live with Martinez and his family as their pet. Like all labs, she loves kids, he said. That was evident yesterday as firefighters’ kids swarmed around her after the presentation.
Brooks said firefighters from Jamesport, Manorville and Mattituck attended the training session in Riverhead yesterday.
“It was a very, very good presentation,” Brooks said, thanking Suffolk County Chief Fire Marshal Ed Springer for making it available.
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