Picayune fire department has a new arson investigator

Published 1:45 pm Friday, September 12, 2008

A new investigator has joined the Picayune Fire Department. She sports a shiny black coat, four legs and a nose for accelerants.

Her name is Joanie, she is three years old and described as an English Black Labrador. Picayune Fire Marshall Pat Weaver returned last week from a State Farm funded training session in Maine that not only oriented him with his new work companion, who also goes home with him, but also trained them in how to effectively work together.

Bonding between Weaver and Joanie began in Maine. Weaver said Joanie stayed in his room with him in Maine and now is a resident at his home in Pearl River County.

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The new team enables the department to find the presence of accelerants in fire cases where arson is suspected.

The State Farm Insurance-funded program involved 200 hours of training that took place at the Main State Criminal Justice Academy, Weaver said. There, Weaver and Joanie learned how to work together to sniff out the possible cause of a suspected arson. Now that their training is complete, both Weaver and Joanie are certified, he said.

“We’re certified as a team,” Weaver said.

Each year, their certification is renewed at a regional location.

“She’s still going to be learning as we go,” Weaver said.

In a demonstration performed Tuesday, Weaver and Joanie walked around the fire training house at Fire Station 1, a large concrete structure where firefighters practice extinguishing fires, and directed her to sniff in certain areas where he had put an accelerant. When she detected the accelerant, she sat at that area. Weaver then promptly gave her a treat and lots of praise.

The food-and-praise reward process was used to train Joanie how to do her job, Weaver said.

Joanie can expect to become a hit with the local children when she tours local schools where she will help with public education, Weaver said.

“When I was going through the airport I had kids around me all the time,” Weaver said.

Joanie is one of fewer than 250 arson dogs in the country and the only arson dog in Pearl River County.

Most arson dogs come from a seeing eye-dog academy after they have been determined to be unsuitable for seeing eye dog duty. Dogs with a high food drive, such as Joanie, are better suited for arson dog duties than seeing-eye dog duties, Weaver said.

Local veterinarian Kevin Smith has told the department that he will provide health care to Joanie free of charge, said Janet Guidry, a Picayune Fire Department employee.