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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 2:13 pm | Fair 62º


Santa Barbara County Shows Off SUV Specially Designed to Deploy Fire-Sniffing Canines

Donor-purchased vehicle comes equipped with special sensors for temperature control, tinted windows and a protected interior for safe transport

A specially designed 2014 Chevy Suburban SUV was donated to the Santa Barbara County Fire Department for use by its Arson Task Force. (Mike Eliason / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara County Fire Department unveiled a new vehicle Wednesday that's specially designed to help the Arson Task Force safely transport and deploy service canines.

The black 2014 Chevy Suburban SUV, with an estimated value of around $70,000, was purchased by an anonymous donor through the Santa Barbara Firefighters Alliance.

It contains special compartments for equipment, evidence-collection containers, decontamination equipment, and a protective cage for dogs when the car is in motion.

The SUV also comes equipped with sensors that can detect the internal temperature of the car. If the sun is heating the car unevenly, the sensors will start the vehicle and activate internal fans and air conditioning to cool it down.

Fire Capt. Howard Orr and his detection canine, Riley, have been partners for roughly a year, and have been certified through a scholarship program furnished by State Farm Insurance Co. to carry out arson investigations. Orr said the SUV is designed to set off its horn and page him before it reaches dangerous temperatures.

“It's an unfortunate reality that some canines die in their service vehicle every year, so these systems are there to prevent those kinds of emergencies from occurring,” Orr told Noozhawk.

Paul Cashman , a State Farm representative and president of the Santa Barbara Firefighters Alliance, said it's estimated that arson-related insurance fraud costs the industry and its customers as much as $30 billion a year.

Riley, a black Labrador retriever who was specially trained through the State Farm Arson Dog Training Program to detect fire-causing accelerants, has a sense of smell powerful enough to detect evaporated agents at trace amounts as low as 200 parts per billion.

"Imagine a room filled with a million ping pong balls and one of them is covered with trace amounts of a gas. Riley will find that one in a million," he said. 

Dogs like Riley are imprinted from an early to alert humans only when they detect agents that can start a fire. Because his training is based on a food reward system, Riley is only fed when he trains.

Riley is a service dog with the Santa Barbara County Arson Task Force. (Mike Eliason / Noozhawk photo)

Orr keeps a variety of accelerants that he uses to train Riley several times a day to keep him fed, and his skills sharp.

As a result of the constant training, Riley must live with Orr. And while he said its a labor of love, sometimes the arrangement has its drawbacks.

"My family just went to Maui for my son's soccer tournament. They went, and I stayed home with Riley,” he said with a laugh.

The Santa Barbara Firefighters Alliance provides a budgeting process to raise money outside of the department's budget to obtain specialized equipment and resources like trained arson canines.

State Farm has deployed as many as 300 arson-dog teams throughout the United States and Canada, and provides training for arson dogs and handlers.

— Noozhawk intern Shaun Kahmann can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk,@NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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