The hiring of the Rochester Fire Department's first full-time fire marshal in a decade came with an added bonus -- an accelerant detection canine named Radar.
The 6 1/2-year-old golden-lab mix and his human partner Chris Ferguson join the department after a career in Iowa.
"Its been a great opportunity," Ferguson said of his decision to join the department.
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Ferguson started his career as a firefighter-paramedic in his hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, and said the wide array of roles and responsibilities of fire marshal is what drew him to the position initially. Investigating why fires happen and helping to bring closure to what is normally a traumatic or noteworthy event in a person's life or community, brings Ferguson satisfaction.
The Rochester Fire Department had been without a fire marshal for about a decade. When the previous fire marshal was promoted to deputy chief, the department didn't fill the position and instead, Chief Deputy R. Vance Swisher held dual roles. The department did add a third assistant fire marshal.
In 2019, the Rochester City Council approved the request of Fire Chief Eric Kerska to fill the position.
The duties of a fire marshal are threefold; code enforcement, fire investigations and public education.
Swisher said the most time consuming of the duties is code enforcement, which includes looking at new construction projects, checking existing buildings and verifying fire protections systems like sprinklers and fire alarms are maintained.
The public is likely to see the effects of having a fire marshal with increased public education efforts and more outreach. While the department has been proactive communicating to the community through its public relations group, Swisher said he expects to see a bigger educational impact to targeted groups.
Having an arson dog as part of the team, a first for the department, can help investigators reduce the amount of time it takes to search or survey a fire scene. The dog's keen sense of smell allows investigators to pinpoint evidence to be collected.
Ferguson and Radar became partners more than four years go through the State Farm Arson Dog Program, which provides financial support for the acquisition and training of arson dogs.
"It's been a great relationship," Ferguson said. "He relies on me to look out and care for his needs; in return, he uses his abilities to assist us in what we do."
In the time they've been together, Radar has been to approximately 80 to 100 fires ranging from structures fires to vehicles fire to even some open area grass fires.
While Ferguson considers Radar a family member, he is not a pet.
"He is my partner," Ferguson said. "He is a working K9 for the time being."
Radar is a food-based reward working dog, which means he only eats when he is working a scene or when he is training. Training occurs at least twice a day, but can happen more than that. When Radar's done his job detecting the odor of an accelerant or an ignitable liquid, he is then hand fed by Ferguson. While working, Radar also wears a badge on his collar. When the work day is done, Radar does go home with Ferguson.
On Wednesday afternoon, Radar and Ferguson gave a demonstration on the dog's abilities inside the truck bay of Fire Station 2, 2185 Wheelock Drive NE. Placing small drops of gas in pint-sized paint cans hidden inside cinder blocks, Ferguson then took Radar to sniff the bricks to determine where the accelerant had been placed.
Even before the exercise began, Radar perked up when he saw his food pouch on Ferguson's hip. That was the sign it was time to get to work and then eat.
After the drops were placed, Ferguson took Radar on two short passes past the bricks. When Radar found something, he sat in front of it and then was rewarded with food.