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Retired CRFD fire investigator and arson dog handler says goodbye to K-9 partner

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“She chose me, I didn’t choose her,” former Cedar Rapids Fire Investigator Al Brockhohn recalled of the day he brought home Ember, his K-9 partner.

Ember, a female black Labrador retriever, died earlier this month at the age of 15 years and 7 months. Brockhohn, who retired with Ember in 2015 after 40 years with the Cedar Rapids Fire Department, said she had been diagnosed about five years ago with laryngeal paralysis — a neuropathy that starts in the larynx and extends out to the rear legs.

“She did well for a time, and then it just kind of took over and it was time to let her go,” he said. “It’s been hard adjusting to life without her. She was a great dog.”

Ember worked with Brockhohn and the Cedar Rapids Fire Department as an arson detection dog for about 10 years. During her career, she earned and maintained a record of 100 percent accuracy when it came to detecting the presence of accelerants at fire scenes.

“We worked hundreds of cases together over the years,” Brockhohn said. “And every sample that I sent into the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation lab over the course of her career was confirmed, meaning every sample that she alerted on and that I sent into DCI for analysis, was confirmed for the presence of some sort of accelerant. So, she had a 100 percent record of accuracy, which was really quite something.”

Ember was Brockhohn’s second K-9 partner. His first dog, Moe, a male yellow Labrador retriever, was retired in 2005 and died in July 2008.

Brockhohn said Moe was acquired from Maine Specialty Dogs in Gray, Maine, through a grant from the State Farm Insurance Company’s Arson Dog Program.

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“There are two of these programs in the world, actually — one through ATF and one through State Farm — and, long story short, I got a scholarship and I received Moe,” he said.

When it became time for Moe to retire, Brockhohn said he called up Maine Specialty Dogs for a second time and was told there were three dogs available in Dixon, Ill.

“I was supposed to go there and look at them and pick one and start training with it,” he said. “And while I was sitting there in the parking lot, the trainer asked me if I had made a decision yet, and I had the door open to my car and (Ember) just jumped in. So, she actually chose me, I didn’t choose her.”

For the 10 years they worked together, Brockhohn said Ember proved to be an invaluable partner.

“There are really not that many fire departments that have arson dogs,” he said. “In Iowa, I think, there’s maybe about four of five of them, and there are a lot of states that don’t have them at all. But for the Cedar Rapids Fire Department, having an arson dog was an incredibly valuable asset.”

Without a dog, he said, investigating potential arson scenes would be a lot more labor-intensive, time-consuming and costly.

“When working a fire scene, we’d go into a room, and we may have to dig that entire room out, and if it was a large building or multiple rooms — we may have to dig that entire scene out — and take samples from multiple places, which can literally take days. But with a dog, we can pretty much just bring her in there, without removing much of the debris at all, work her over the top of the debris and take samples from the areas where she alerts, confirm her findings and just dig out those areas.”

And, in addition to saving time and labor, arson dogs, he said, are far more accurate.

“It’s also a lot more accurate, because before we had a dog, we would dig those rooms out and just take pot shots based on the burn patterns we saw. We’d take 10 or 15 or 20 samples and send them off to the lab. And back then, we were lucky to be 20 or 30 percent on confirmations from the lab. Now, with a dog, you can do it quicker, and they’re going to get it right pretty much every time.”

Ember was originally from Sarasota, Fla., he said, where she was trained as a Seeing Eye dog. She later made the trip to Illinois, where she was trained as an arson detection dog. But she found her home and her purpose with Brockhohn in Cedar Rapids.

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“When I first got her, she didn’t really know how to be a dog,” he said. “All she knew was how to work. We’d try to walk her and if you stepped off the curb, she’d try to lead you back up on the sidewalk because of her Seeing Eye dog training. And she never really played with toys and she wouldn’t play with Moe for quite some time. She was just a very subdued dog and she never really learned how to stop working and be a dog.”

But, with some encouragement and some help from Moe, who was getting up in years, Brockhohn said Ember learned to play a little and have some dog-like fun.

“She was a very laid-back girl — very subdued — and she loved people,” he said. “When I sat down, she’d come over to me and lie down at my feet and put her paw on my foot, just to let me know she was there.”

When she wasn’t working, Brockhohn said Ember went everywhere with the family — vacations, day trips, solo trips with Brockhohn.

The loss, he said, has left a big hole.

“We’re still dealing with it,” he said. “We walked into the house the other day, and we saw something black on the couch and my wife said ‘Oh Ember actually made it up on the couch!’ but it was just a black pillow, and then we remembered Ember was gone. Every time we open the door, we expect her there to greet us, and of course that’s all changed. So yeah, there’s that missing piece that we’re dealing with.”

But Brockhohn said the family is finding comfort in knowing Ember led a full and valuable life.

“I know that she had a great, long life,” he said. “And I knew at the point when she did pass, that she was ready to go, so that makes it a little easier.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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