State Fire Marshals bring an arson fighting dog to Southern Illinois


Reporter - Kathryn DiGisi

WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Ill. - State Fire Marshals say they see an increase in the number of cases of arson when the economy struggles.

Investigators say people will set their cars or homes on fire to collect insurance money or to avoid a monthly payment.

In 2011, Paducah fire fighters saw about 29 cases of arson.  Cape Girardeau had five that year, and in Union City, Tennessee there were 11 cases.

But officials say arson fighting canines will help to decrease these numbers.

Gemma is a 16-month-old black lab who works for the Illinois State Fire Marshal.

Her job is to seek out an accelerant in the aftermath of a fire to determine if that fire was started intentionally.

Arson investigator Jeff Pride says one word will send her sniffing.

"Her command whenever I'm ready for her to go is seek," said Pride.

If she smells what investigators are looking for, she signals to them by sitting.

"She'll go into an alert just like that, and she gets fed," said Pride.

Marion Fire Chief Jack Reed says there is always a spike in arson cases when the economy suffers, but there are other common motives.

"Revenge fires, there's fight fires, there's fires that folks on occasion would set as a hero type fire," said Reed.

All of them will send Gemma and Illinois' four other arson fighting canines into action.

"These dogs, they're going to see 120, 150, 170 fires a year, easily," said Reed.

Gemma's nose helps eliminate some of the guess work when it comes to investigations and helps speed up the process so arrests can be made more quickly.

Gemma has been on the job in Southern Illinois for just a month, but she has already responded to 11 fires, seven of which she has sniffed out an accelerant.