We all know the police force relies heavily on the use of dogs, for everything from tracking suspects to sniffing out drugs.
But how many people know that man’s best friend also plays a vital role in investigating fires?
Hertfordshire’s third fire investigation dog, two-year-old Reqs, is a new recruit to the service and is working alongside veteran and fellow black labrador CC – with whom he also lives at home.
Retained firefighter Nikki Harvey has worked for Herts Fire and Rescue Service for almost 20 years, initially in the control room and more recently as the county’s investigation dog handler.
She has raised, lived and worked with both CC, due to retire later this year, and sprightly Reqs, who only became fully operational in April.
His name is pronounced ‘Rex’ but is short for Requisition as, like CC, he was named by sponsors Computacenter UK.
Nikki’s dogs have been important in a number of high profile fire investigations in March in Highfield, Hemel Hempstead, where 63-year-old Thomas Baird was discovered dead.
It was later discovered that he had been murdered.
Nikki said: “It is all about evidence collection – if we have found petrol in a fire scene we can categorically prove that it was deliberate, and Reqs is very helpful with that.”
Reqs, like his predecessor CC, has assisted in many investigations into suicides, fatal fires, arson attacks and murder across the county, because he is trained to detect even the faintest traces of accelerants such as petrol and white spirit.
Richard Thake, who is responsible for community safety and planning at Herts County Council, believes Reqs’ work is critical in assisting the service. He said: “It plays an integral part in community fire safety.
“Reqs is exceptionally valuable and receives the same high degree of training that we afford all frontline fire personnel.”
Nikki brought her newest canine co-worker to Hemel Hempstead Fire Station in Queensway so that he could show off his skills.
With his smart harness and protective boots on all fours, Reqs looked as though he was kitted out as well as Nikki in her full fire-fighting gear.
Although he looks the part and is clearly vital to the fire investigations in which he takes part, for Nikki, it is important that Reqs never feels like he is working.
She said: “Training to Reqs isn’t really training, it is a game. It’s not work at all.
“He is trained to detect particular smells in the form of petrol and so on, and once he finds particular smells he points with his nose.
“He gets a tennis ball as a reward which is his favourite thing in the world. We don’t need to do any training to keep him interested in his tennis ball as he loves it so much.”
It is clear from meeting him that Reqs is a puppy at heart – albeit an extremely intelligent one.
He wastes no time sniffing out the tiny petrol drop Nikki has placed on a sofa inside the station’s smoke room, and promptly goes about playing fetch with his tennis ball as though he has no cares in the world.
He began training at just six months old.
“We can’t use food as a reward because sometimes he might find burnt food in a fire scene, and he would think his job is done,” says Nikki.
“For that reason, we use the ball. My worst nightmare would be a fire in a tennis ball factory because he would go mad.”
It is clear that Nikki and Reqs are pretty much an infallible team.
Indeed, she sees both Reqs and CC, whom she will continue to look after despite his forthcoming retirement, as family pets.
She has a third labrador, seven-year-old Barney, who’s the only unemployed member of the pack.
She said: “I couldn’t ever give CC or Reqs up, they are all a part of my family now.
“We work together, we live together, they even come on holidays with me.
“It is really good fun to work with someone who doesn’t answer you back and isn’t miserable – as long as there’s a tennis ball around.”
You can watch Natalee Hazelwood’s video report on Reqs in action by visiting our websites.