Top Dog: Fire K9 Ember joins Fire Marshall’s office

Meet Ember, the Gloucester County Fire Marshall office’s newest recruit. A Fire K9, Ember, pictured with Fire Marshall Shawn Layton, was donated by K9 Academy Director Joe Nick from the John “Sonny” Burke Police K-9 Academy and spent her first month training in her new role. (photo provided)

Six years ago this September, during his first term as a Gloucester County freeholder, Daniel Christy became aware of just how critical a working dog can be in an investigation.

It was September of 2014. A 3 ½-year-old boy went missing in Glassboro.

But not long after K-9s Charlie and Delta arrived on the scene, the boy was found. The Gloucester County Sheriff Department’s brother-and-sister canine duo followed the scent and found the child in a neighbor’s basement.

“He had wandered a few doors down to a neighbor’s house and got into a basement through a door and fell asleep,” Christy recalled. “Nobody could find him and everyone was looking all over the place. And you know how terrifying that can be for everyone involved, especially a parent. But the bloodhounds found him. Soon as they get that scent, it doesn’t take long for them to get on a trail.

“They’re a great tool.”

The county officially welcomed another K-9 to its team of first responders last week. Ember, a 1-year-old Red fox Labrador, teamed with her partner, Chief County Fire Marshal Shawn Layton, for a new working relationship after months of comprehensive training.

Ember arrived at the county fire marshal’s office as a donation from Joe Nick, K-9 director at the John “Sonny” Burke Police K-9 Academy at the Atlantic County Police Training Center. Prior to starting her active duty last week, Ember had worked with Layton at the academy since February. He  estimated Ember could work as many as 100 fire scenes in any given year.

“Ember is going to be great,” Layton said. “After 16 weeks of training, I know she’s an awesome dog. We’ve trained on over 15 different accelerants, from common household things like lighter fluid, gasoline, turpentine and nail polish remover. So what she does is she’ll go right into a fire scene, sniff out the whole scene, and then she’ll sit at the exact spot an accelerant was poured.”

Like most working dogs, Ember stays with Layton full time, working with him throughout the day and going home with him too. Layton has a 4-year-old black lab at home named (fittingly) Marshal. 

Ember, as with any typical young Lab, is full of energy. “She’s nuts,” Layton said during a Zoom call that included Ember occasionally jumping onto his desk to join the conversation.

“But when I put her vest on,” he continued, “she calms right down and knows she has to go to work. Totally different dog when she knows she has to go to work. If you came into my office right now, she’d be jumping all over you. But if I brought her outside and told her it’s time to go to work, she would ignore you.”

Ember is the second fire K-9 in the county; Storm works out of the sheriff’s department. 

“This was such a great surprise when we knew we had this opportunity. I want to thank Joe Nick for donating Ember,” Christy said. “It’s so important to have these dogs. When you have a fire, the sooner you can identify the source of the fire — and that’s where Ember comes in, finding the accelerant — you can identify whether it was foul play arson, or an accidental fire. The quicker you can get that done, if there’s arson or foul play involved, the sooner you can find that individual who is responsible and hold them accountable.”

How powerful is a dog’s nose? While humans have six million olfactory receptors in their noses, dogs have 300 million. Their noses are roughly 100,000 times more powerful.

Gloucester County Freeholder Daniel Christy with new Gloucester County Fire Marshall K9 Ember. (photo provided)

“I’ve seen Ember in action,” Christy said. “Shawn gave me a display with rags that had different smells on them and he hid them. She was just amazing. She is all over the place, smelling, and goes right to it.

“There is no way we’d be able to have that kind of ability to move the investigation along without Ember.”

Like any pup, Ember needed training. Layton can remember meeting her for the first time this winter.

“She was a ball of fire,” Layton recalled, probably without realizing the pun. “Obviously she’s working for a reward. So when she’s going to work and she finds what she’s supposed to find, she gets her ball. The only time she gets that ball is any time she finds an accelerant.

“We don’t play with that ball,” he added. “I have separate toys I play with her with, but the ball is her favorite. So she knows when she finds what she needs to find, she gets that ball.”

After nearly six months of training, Ember is now an official member of the fire marshal’s department.

“Honestly I love it already,” Layton said of his new partner. “She comes with me to work every day, she rides in the car with me all day and she’s very good in the car, surprisingly. I’m just excited to put her to work. 

“Obviously with fire scenes, when you get there, everything is burned out,” he added. “You let the dog loose and let her work. It eliminates any possibility of arson, even when you’re not sure, because obviously everything burns away. It’s another resource to eliminate someone intentionally setting something on fire.”

“It’s so important to have these dogs,” Freeholder Daniel Christy said. “When you have a fire, the sooner you can identify the source of the fire — and that’s where Ember comes in, finding the accelerant — you can identify whether it was foul play arson, or an accidental fire. The quicker you can get that done, if there’s arson or foul play involved, the sooner you can find that individual who is responsible and hold them accountable.” (Photo provided)