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Cambridge beefs up bomb squad with dogs

Cambridge police Sergeant E.J. Frammartino worked with his 22-month-old Labrador retriever, Dixie. Observing at right is MBTA Transit Police Officer Stacy Cassetta. If Dixie stays on task, her reward is a tennis ball.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Cambridge police Sergeant E.J. Frammartino worked with his 22-month-old Labrador retriever, Dixie. Observing at right is MBTA Transit Police Officer Stacy Cassetta. If Dixie stays on task, her reward is a tennis ball.

ARLINGTON — He’s earned the nickname Crazy Kevin for his sometimes wild antics, but when the 22-month-old Labrador retriever loped into a training facility Wednesday in Arlington, he quickly got to work searching for bombs.

Guided by his handler, Cambridge police Patrol Officer Stephen Lyons, Kevin circled a parked Ford Crown Victoria, crouched underneath to get a whiff, sniffed around the tires, and then detected explosive materials at the door and immediately did what he is being trained to do — he sat.

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“Good boy!” said Lyons, rewarding the dog with a toy while fellow training officers cheered.

Kevin, tail wagging, got too excited by the praise and bolted across the room for a can of tennis balls that he knocked over.

The training may still be a work in progress, but Kevin and fellow Labrador retriever Dixie are well on their way to joining a new full-time bomb squad that the Cambridge Police Department decided to assemble in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.

The dogs will finish their training in late March, in time to join the new bomb squad and assist with regional law enforcement plans for securing this year’s Marathon.

Until now, Cambridge police Deputy Superintendent Stephen Ahern said, his department had only a part-time explosive ordnance unit that did not have any bomb-sniffing dogs. Some members of the small unit assisted the Boston Police bomb squad after the Marathon bombing last year, while others were responding to a surge in reports of suspicious packages in Cambridge.

Before the Marathon bombing, Ahern said, Cambridge police received 15 to 25 reports a month about suspicious items that the bomb squad would inspect. In the two weeks after the Marathon, the department received about 200 reports of suspicious packages, and the numbers remain up at about 30 calls a month. He attributes the increase in calls to heightened vigilance by citizens when they see an abandoned package.

“What they saw on April 14 wasn’t suspicious to them, but what they saw after April 15 was,” he said.

The increased vigilance has strained police resources, however, because Ahern said it takes his department an average of 24 minutes to clear a report of a suspicious package.

Having a full-time team equipped with bomb-sniffing dogs will help cut down on the time and prevent the city from having to call Boston or State Police bomb squads.

Ahern said that after last year’s Marathon, members of the Metro Boston Homeland Security Region, which includes Brookline, Chelsea, Quincy, Revere, Somerville, and Winthrop, were analyzing gaps in the response to the bombing. A decision was made that federal grant money could enhance the capabilities of the region’s bomb squads and tactical teams in Boston and Cambridge.

In addition to creating a full-time bomb squad with dogs in Cambridge, Boston Police said they are also adding more explosive-detecting canines to their department. Together, the squads will be able to provide more support to communities in the region who do not have full bomb squads.

The Brookline Police Department doesn’t have a bomb squad with canines, and Chief Daniel O’Leary said his department has typically called Boston police or State Police to respond to reports of explosive devices.

But with Boston police handling much of the Marathon route this year, O’Leary said Brookline will instead rely on the new Cambridge unit to assist along the race route through town.

Cambridge is using about $1 million from an Urban Areas Security Initiative grant through the US Department of Homeland Security to launch the full-time bomb squad. Ahern said the city is also paying about $485,000 to fund additional training and equipment the police department determined officers needed after the Marathon bombing.

Much of the grant funding is being used for bomb suits, vehicles, and robots used to handle explosive devices, and Ahern said the department will train five bomb-sniffing dogs by July 4. Each dog will be partnered with a handler who is a trained bomb technician.

MBTA transit police Patrol Officer Lawrence Culbert, who is a master dog trainer and is helping Cambridge teach its new dogs, said the training process takes about three months. The dogs are trained to sit when they find a bomb, but Culbert said the most difficult part is in the first weeks when they learn to recognize the smells of different explosives.

Culbert said the dogs learn to find bombs in cars, mass transit, buildings, and luggage, and their “paycheck” is a toy they get whenever they detect something.

Lyons rewards Kevin with a rubber Kong toy, while Cambridge Police Sergeant E.J. Frammartino gives Dixie a tennis ball. The dogs live and work with their handlers, and Culbert said it usually takes the teams about a year to learn how to work together.

“Just like people, each dog has its own personality,” he said. “Sometimes we have to slow the dog down; sometimes we have to speed them up.”

Lyons said Kevin is working out well at home, even if he has already gotten his handler in trouble a couple of times by relieving himself in some inopportune places. He said the dog is learning fast, and next week will be taught how to find bombs in suitcases.

“When we start luggage, that will be a brand-new thing that he’s never been exposed to,” Lyons said. “So I expect the first day he’ll be knocking over suitcases, biting suitcases, running away from me.

“But once he gets it, and goes ‘Well wait a minute, if I follow what you are telling me and I find a scent that I recognize, then I get a toy,’ then he starts to get on point.”

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.parker@globe.com.
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