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Arson dog travels the state

A WELL-TRAVELED K-9: Marion Fire Department's arson dog, Jersey, shows off her accelerant-detecting skills at Marion City Hall in 2015. Jersey has assisted the FBI, DEA, State Fire Marshall's Office and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources with investigations.

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

Fire Investigator Brandon Eckstein and his arson-investigating partner K-9 Officer Jersey had a busy year in 2018.

Jersey, a yellow labrador retriever specially trained to detect fire accelerants like gasoline, lighter fluid and alcohol, is sought after across the state to assist with arson investigations.

She investigated 50 arson cases in Marion, Grant County and across Indiana last year.

Over the last four years Jersey has been with the Marion Fire Department, she has assisted the Indiana Department of Natural Resources with fires set in a state park on the Indiana-Michigan border, and she's traveled to just north of Louisville, too. Jersey has assisted the FBI, the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency and the State Fire Marshall's Office with investigations.

“She's a very unique K-9,” Eckstein said. “There's not too many agencies in Indiana who have an accelerant detection K-9.”

Eckstein said that's because the specially-trained dogs can cost cities a lot in veterinary bills, dog food and training. Even fewer K-9 units are willing to travel to assist other agencies because of the cost of travel and overtime. 

Donations have made Jersey and Eckstein's work possible, the fire investigator said.

Comfort Animal Hospital pays Jersey's vet bills, American Woodmark donated a cage for her and State Farm Insurance donated a vehicle for the duo to use.

Eckstein donates his time and pays for the gas to travel to out-of-county arson investigations so that the expense of helping other agencies doesn't fall in the city's lap, he said.

When Jersey assists agencies in other parts of the state, those agencies will also donate items like dog food to help defray costs, Eckstein said. 

The State Fire Marshall's Office also helps out with Jersey's expenses.

The investigative unit of the Marion Fire Department has been busier as a whole as the number of arsons has continued to rise over the last three years, Eckstein said. The fire department had 19 arson cases last year.

2018 also saw a slight uptick in the number of fires in the city overall, according to Fire Chief Geoff Williams.

Firefighters responded to 183 fires last year compared to 176 the previous year.

Those included 49 building fires, compared to 47 in 2017, two mobile home fires and two aircraft fires – Marion Municipal Airport's two deadly plane crashes this year.

The number of cooking fires the department responded to also went up last year, but Williams said that's a good thing.

“That means we're getting there fast enough that it doesn't turn into a structure fire,” Williams said.