Erie Bureau of Fire adds Horus, a four-legged firefighter, to aid fire scene investigations

Horus seems to enjoy working for his food.

Handfuls of kibble await the 1½-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever each time he hits on a scent. He sits, puts his nose to the scent, then wags his tail as he eagerly plucks the snack from his handler's hand.

It's how accelerant-sniffing dogs like Horus are trained. And it's how Erie Bureau of Fire Capt. Adam Gatti keeps his new partner's skills sharp two to three times a day when the pair aren't called to a fire scene to help investigate the fire's cause.

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Horus began work this week as the newest member of the Erie Bureau of Fire and the youngest member in the bureau's Fire Prevention and Investigation Division. He comes to the city at virtually no cost, thanks to a federal program and the generosity of some local businesses.

He's partnered with Gatti, an 18-year fire department member with a history of partnering with working dogs. A certified search and rescue dog handler, Gatti formerly served as chief of Northwest Pennsylvania K-9 Search and Rescue and remains with that group with his wife, LuAnn.

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Three search and rescue dogs, two active and one retired, live with the Gattis and have welcomed Horus to the family, he said.

Gatti, who served as an Erie Bureau of Police officer for five years before joining the fire bureau, said the police department had 11 K-9 officers when he first joined the force. He said he always wanted to work with a dog, but did not get the opportunity to do so while a police officer.

"I never thought I'd have to come to the fire department to have a working dog," he said with a smile.

Erie Bureau of Fire Capt. Adam Gatti has partnered with Horus, a 1 1/2-year-old chocolate Labrador Retriever, to assist in fire investigations in Erie and surrounding areas. Horus, shown here with Gatti on Tuesday, is trained in accelerant detection, and has come to the city at no charge through a Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives program.
Erie Bureau of Fire Capt. Adam Gatti has partnered with Horus, a 1 1/2-year-old chocolate Labrador Retriever, to assist in fire investigations in Erie and surrounding areas. Horus, shown here with Gatti on Tuesday, is trained in accelerant detection, and has come to the city at no charge through a Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives program.

Finding a partner

Gatti and Don Sauer, the fire bureau's chief fire inspector, credit the support of Mayor Joe Schember, his staff, members of Erie City Council and Fire Chief Joe Walko and other bureau administrators in making the acquisition of Horus a reality.

"Everybody's been so helpful and so encouraging in backing us in getting the dog," Sauer said.

Gatti said it was a two-year process that he first pitched to Sauer and the bureau's former chief inspector, Darren Hart. He said he researched two programs that provide accelerant-sniffing dogs, one through State Farm and the other through the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and decided to apply to the ATF program.

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The federal agency's Accelerant Detection Canine Program provided Erie fire with Horus at no charge, as well as the dog's training, a six-week training program in Virginia that Gatti and Horus completed in mid-November, and Gatti's lodging during the training.

Horus is one of 65 ATF accelerant-detection dogs across the country, Gatti said. The dog is considered a regional asset and will be called on to assist in investigations beyond Erie when needed, he said.

The two closest accelerant-detection dogs to Erie before Horus began work were a State Farm dog in Beaver County and an ATF dog in Allegheny County, according to Gatti and Sauer.

Horus and Gatti are also part of the ATF's National Response Team and may be called upon in large-scale investigations across the country, Gatti added.

Gatti said others have stepped in to help with Horus's care now that he's employed in Erie. He said Animal Ark and Animal Kingdom pet hospitals have agreed to provide free basic veterinary care; Buzz n' B's Aquarium & Pet Shop is providing a lifetime supply of food and Sheldon's Carpets is providing carpet remnants for use in training.

Erie Bureau of Fire Capt. Adam Gatti runs Horus, a chocolate Labrador retriever trained in accelerant detection, through a drill at the bureau's Marsh Street offices on Tuesday.
Erie Bureau of Fire Capt. Adam Gatti runs Horus, a chocolate Labrador retriever trained in accelerant detection, through a drill at the bureau's Marsh Street offices on Tuesday.

How Horus works

Horus' job is to determine whether an accelerant was used to start a fire at a scene, no matter if it's in a building, a vehicle or an open space, Gatti said. The dog is trained to detect different petroleum distillates, including gasoline, diesel fuel and lighter fluid, he said.

If the dog is able to detect the presence of an accelerant, that information is passed along to the Erie Bureau of Police to do a criminal investigation and to charge a suspect, if it is determined a fire is intentionally set, Sauer said.

Great care is taken in placing Horus at a fire scene, Gatti said. First, the scene is checked to determine that it is safe for the dog to enter, including checking to make sure the scene is cooled down and there are no dangers such as holes in the floor, he said.

"He doesn't go anywhere we wouldn't go in without a mask on," Gatti said.

Once Horus' work is done, he goes through a decontamination process that includes getting a bath, according to Gatti and Sauer.

Horus has so far gone to three local fire scenes, but found nothing suspicious, they said.

Beyond working fires, Horus' benefits to the Erie Bureau of Fire include working with the bureau's two full-time fire inspectors on fire prevention programs in area schools, and serving as "a great PR tool" for the department, Sauer said.

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Walko said for a department of Erie's size, having an arson investigator dog is a pretty big deal "that really puts us on the map."

Walko said evidence has shown that in areas where such a dog is present, arsons have decreased.

"We're very proud of that and very proud of Horus," Walko said. "The city of Erie and surrounding areas have a big benefit now."

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Contact Tim Hahn at thahn@timesnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ETNhahn.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Erie Fire Department arson dog, a Labrador named Horus joins force