The Loudoun County Fire Marshal’s Office is asking the county for funding for a second explosives detection canine, restoring a position that has gone empty for years.
A second bomb-sniffing dog team would make Loudoun better equipped to respond to threats like this week’s scare, which shut down Tuscarora High School for more than six hours Thursday, much more quickly, said Captain Leif Sundberg. He’s the handler for Aurora, the county’s only bomb-sniffing dog.
Sundberg said he was off duty, doing yard work, and swinging through Leesburg Thursday.
“I get the call yesterday, 30 minutes, I’m on the scene with the Leesburg Police Department,” Sundberg said. “It was a little over an hour for the next dog to show up.”
That’s because the next dog was from the Virginia State Police, coming from Prince William County. After that, a Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority dog arrived from Reagan National Airport, and finally—about two hours after Sundberg and Aurora showed up on scene—another state police dog arrived from Culpeper.
“It’s not guaranteed that another jurisdiction’s going to come help us, because they keep their resources for their functions,” said Deputy Fire Marshal and Bloodhound handler Jerome Swain. “For instance, Dulles Airport, they have to keep a certain amount of dogs to protect their interests. Some of the federal agencies are the same way.”
That also means in the case of a regional incident, all the other dogs may be busy, leaving none to spare for Loudoun. Having two teams, Swain said, ensures Loudoun will always have at least one available, and will mean the work gets done faster.
“It makes a big difference,” Swain said. “Leif and his wife just went to Europe, and during that timeframe, we didn’t have the resource, so we had to depend on outside resources if they were available. Now, at least from our office’s standpoint, we’ll be able to say, ‘OK, go to France, but we’ll at least have another dog in the bag.’”
Not literally. Aurora lives and vacations with Sundberg and eats only out of his hand. Suitable dogs are trained by either the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms or the Central Intelligence Agency in a six-week course. The dog’s handler and family must also be suitable for the job, and the handler’s course is slightly longer.
“The dogs can learn the job in six weeks,” Sundberg said. “It takes me ten weeks.”
The Fire Marshal’s Office has had a dog team since 1998. In 2012, one of the bomb-sniffing dogs was retired, and before the office could arrange for training, funding, and a dog and handler, the money was diverted elsewhere.
According to county staff, a second team would cost the county $26,270 annually, along with $7,000 for a dog. The county finance committee has unanimously recommended the second dog to the full board. The department has already found its next handler, investigator Chris Barry.