Fire Marshal throws retirement party for explosive-detecting canine
WINCHESTER – The Fredrick County Fire Marshal’s Office celebrated the retirement of Chance, the department’s 9-year-old explosive-detecting Labrador retriever Tuesday.
Along with his handler, Deputy Chief Jay Bauserman, Chance has responded to about 300 calls over eight years of service (56, in dog years).
One of Chance’s most notable feats was thwarting a potential terrorist attack at a nearby school, when he was called to help execute a search warrant in a neighboring county.
“They had a suspect who threatened to blow up a school. And they had knowledge that he was going to try to do like a Columbine-style massacre,” said Lt. Mark Showers of the fire marshal’s office. “So Chance went in, and he found an almost-completed device underneath the bed. And when I mean almost completed, it was almost completed. It was rather large, too.”
Chance continued to search the house and found a gym bag full of “crickets” — miniature explosives, reminiscent of firecrackers, that blast shrapnel on impact. Showers likened them to “mini-hand grenades.”
Showers estimates that Chance’s nose can detect about 19,000 unique types of explosives.
“When you walk into a Pizza Hut, what do you smell? You smell pizza,” Showers said. “When a dog walks into a Pizza Hut he smells the pepperoni, the yeast. They break it down. They can find that one, minute part. And something in those 19,000 types of explosives — he’s looking for that one key element.”
Chance has responded to bomb threats at James Madison University and George’s Chicken in Edinburg. He’s helped identify suspects in drive-by shootings before lab results can come back. He’s become a star of public education outreach, especially when the officers are presenting to children.
On one assignment, Chance was called out to help find a missing gun that a jogger had dropped on her run. She called the Warren County Sheriff’s Office and police responded to the scene.
“They’re searching and searching, they can’t find it. They call over to Jay. (He’s) like, ‘Yeah, we can find it. That’s not a problem,'” Showers said. “When (Bauserman and Chance) searched an entire mile, they found that pistol. Muzzle-down, in the mud, and everything was (submerged) but the butt of the pistol. But he found the pistol. Now you tell me if that’s not a nose.”
On another assignment, Chance was searching vehicles when he turned his head and slammed into the bumper of a stationary car. He didn’t show any signs of distress so Bauserman continued with the task at hand, but the next day he noticed a speck of blood in Chance’s eye.
He took Chance to Animal Medical Center and discovered the dog had massive pressure on his eye. The canine went to eye specialists and various doctors, but it was ultimately determined that the best course of action was to remove Chance’s right eye.
“He was in a huge amount of pain, he just wasn’t showing it,” Showers said. “We were really worried about, you know, would he ever return back to service?”
He did. After only two months of recuperation, Chance was back on full active duty.
“Everybody’s like, ‘How the hell’s a one-eyed dog going to search for stuff?'” Showers said. “The nose does the work. The eye just helps him walk around everything … The nose is the moneymaker.”
Frederick County Fire Chief Dennis Linaburg stressed that for an explosive-detecting dog and its handler to be effective, a support system at home is essential. During the dog’s initial training, handlers have to train alongside the canine, seven days a week, for months.
And after that, handlers have to be able to respond to crises even if they took vacation time.
“The wives, the family … without that support system at home, the handler wouldn’t be as good as they are, the dog wouldn’t be as good as they are,” Linaburg said. “That support system has to be there when they get home.”
With Chance leaving, the Fire Marshal’s Office recruited Heide on Nov. 17 to assume the role of the department’s explosive-detecting dog.
She has “big paws to fill,” Showers said.
Heide and the rest of her litter were named for astronauts. Heide’s namesake is Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, American Naval officer and former NASA astronaut.
Chance still lives with Bauserman, but no longer has to work for his food. At his retirement party, the department presented Chance with a huge, metal bowl emblazoned with his name.
Still, Chance hasn’t disappeared from the station. He still comes by with Bauserman, sometimes to take naps.