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Expense of arson dog causes one nose to turn up

Lealman firefighter Ron Neuberger and Quincy have trained to detect accelerants. The two are to be tested this week.

Photo courtesy of Ron Neuberger

Lealman firefighter Ron Neuberger and Quincy have trained to detect accelerants. The two are to be tested this week.

LEALMAN

A caustic squabble ignited at a civic group meeting when two political foes wrangled and even audience members joined the fray.

The topic of the dispute at the Lealman Community Association? A 10-month-old Labrador mix named Quincy.

John Frank, who's running for a seat on the Lealman Fire Commission, sees Quincy, being trained as an arson dog, as a symbol of the fire district's waste of tax money. Incumbent Vivian Diane Campbell, who's facing Frank in the November election, sees the puppy as an example of the district's goal of providing the best service possible.

Quincy belongs to Lealman firefighter Ron Neuberger, who was looking for a pet. He saw Quincy at Pet Pal Rescue, fell in love with him and took him home. Soon after, Neuberger said, the puppy started doing "amazing" things that included sniffing out lizards.

The county's only arson dog, Scout, a yellow Lab that worked with the Palm Harbor Fire Department, retired from arson duties at the end of 2007 when his handler retired. Neuberger knew about the void created by Scout's departure and thought Quincy would be perfect.

He went to Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham and said, "I'd like to see if we can do this," Neuberger said.

Commission members thought having an arson dog was a great idea, and Quincy was sent to fire accelerant sniffing school. Neuberger also had to be trained to handle him. The two are scheduled to be tested this week. If they pass, Quincy will become a certified arson dog, the youngest the school has ever trained.

So far, the Lealman district has spent $8,357 on Quincy. American Aluminum received $3,857 to retrofit a department vehicle for Quincy. The Florida K9 Academy, which usually charges $8,000 for training, lowered its fee to $4,500.

Veterinary care and a "cool mat" were donated. The Professional Arson Co-op of Florida has pledged $500 a year toward Quincy's upkeep.

The Lealman district will also have to pay Neuberger whenever Quincy is called out. Neuberger's salary, at least some of which will be overtime, will not be reimbursed unless he and Quincy leave the county. Inside Pinellas, Quincy and Neuberger will be seen as part of the county's mutual aid agreements, which commit fire agencies to help one another free of charge.

"We are seeking further funding sources," said Capt. Larry Thompson, the Lealman department's community education and information officer. "This is not a revenue generator. It is a vital service to our community and a resource that can be used throughout the area."

The idea of an arson dog that sniffs fire scenes to locate accelerants may seem extravagant considering the fact that Pinellas had only 71 arson cases last year and has had 48 so far this year, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office's arson team. Not every case requires a sniffer dog.

But having such a dog is really a boon, say deputies and fire chiefs.

Seminole fire Chief Dan Graves, the head of the county Fire Chiefs Association, said his department had the first arson dog in Pinellas. That was before Seminole became a city in 1970.

The dog, a black Lab named Villain, was a "great dog, did an outstanding job at detecting many kinds of accelerants," Graves said. "He would hit on things so quickly."

That's the advantage of having a dog sniff through the ashes and rubble of a fire scene, Graves said. The dog can quickly point investigators to suspicious spots.

Palm Harbor fire Chief Jimmy Angle, whose department had the county's last arson dog, agreed that a canine sniffer comes in handy.

"It really is a great thing for the county. It does cut down on investigation time," Angle said. "They really have been proven to be a good tool."

Frank, the Lealman fire board candidate, does not dispute that. His concern lies with the costs to Lealman's taxpayers, some of the poorest in the county who already pay a lot for fire service. It is not fair, Frank has said, for a small department like Lealman to expect overburdened taxpayers to fund a dog for the entire county.

Graves conceded that Lealman is a small department, but there is a tradeoff, he said. Because Lealman is small, it is rare for the tiny force to go on a fire call without another department also responding. The dog is a way to help repay those calls. He added that Lealman does provide a lot of help to other agencies by answering calls there. St. Petersburg, he said, benefits a lot from Lealman's assistance.

At least one taxpayer believes the cost is worth it. When Frank brought up Quincy at the Lealman Community Association meeting Wednesday night, Betty Rakowski was quick to defend the expenditures, many of which will be picked up by donations.

Frank did not back down. Voters, he said, need to understand the price not only of Quincy but his handler.

Expense of arson dog causes one nose to turn up 09/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 8, 2008 12:00pm]
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