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PEF member blazes a new trail
First female canine handler investigates causes of fires

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Fire investigator Kristi Geary and Zena. — Photos by Deborah A. Miles

By DEBORAH A. MILES

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.

That’s what Kristi Geary has done.

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This PEF member is a trailblazer in a male-dominated profession being the first female fire investigator in the Office of Fire Prevention and Control (OFPC) and first female canine handler.

What Geary does is not for the faint of heart. It takes skill, knowledge, dedication, flexibility, curiosity, investigative prowess and the ability to handle a high-energy 75 pound long-haired German shepherd named Zena.

Geary got hooked on becoming a fire investigator while studying engineering in college.

“I was also a volunteer firefighter. We had a drill one night on fire investigation. That changed my whole future. I love what I do,” Geary said. “It is a tough field to break into, and fire fighting as a whole. I’ve made a few milestones for myself and for OFPC. There are 13 females in the entire office out of a total of 180 fire protection specialists.”

Geary’s work revolves around determining the cause of a fire, which frequently helps police departments track down the people who set the blaze. If a fire takes the life of a person, she can help bring closure to the family by determining the cause. If an appliance was the culprit, Geary relays that information so OFPC can send out safety bulletins and help with a consumer product recall.

SPECIALIZED TRAINING – PEF members and fire investigators Andy Pohl, Kristi  Geary and John Fairclough work in Albany’s canine unit at the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control.

“OFPC is a growing entity in New York state, and we have a lot of different specialties,” Geary said. “Our work is unique and much has to be kept confidential. We help agencies with crime solving, and have specialized training through the Division of Criminal Justice Services. We are evidence technicians, crime scene photographers and teach classes in criminal investigation.

“We are a small close-knit group, whether at a fire scene or someone to talk with after an investigation. We understand each other.”

Varying job sites

Geary and 13 other fire investigators are responsible for determining the cause of fires throughout the entire state. She is one of five who work out of the Albany office, and where flames take hold, the investigators are soon to follow.

PRACTICE RUN – Kristi Geary, using an almost chant-like voice, instructs Zena to “find the cause.” Above Zena sniffs and locates raw kerosene in a mock fire investigation.

It’s not just in the greater Capital District. In February, Geary got a call at 4:30 a.m. on a Sunday and had to drive to the small, sleepy town of Dannemora, near the Canadian border. She’s done investigations at SUNY Stony Brook on Long Island.

“You remember them all, for either good or bad reasons,” Geary said. “One of the most memorable was the GAP distribution center fire in Fishkill in Dutchess County where the blaze was so intense and difficult to battle, firefighters had to pull back.”

REWARD TIME – After Zena locates the cause of a fire, this long-haired German shepherd is treated to an energetic game of tug of war with her handler, Kristi Geary.

The fire occurred at the end of August in 2016. It took firefighters from 23 departments to extinguish the inferno, and they used more than a million gallons of water. The total damage exceeded $100 million, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“It was a very large building with heavy machinery. It was interesting because it was the first time I worked with the federal bureau and its national response team, plus state, county and local entities. We were there for about a week, and it was a fascinating process, but the source of the fire is still a mystery,’ Geary said.

“You have to be professional and process what has happened when you enter a fire scene. In our line of work, you narrow it down to an area of origin. There are a lot of ways to read a room. You have to separate the work from your personal life. It affects us all, for sure, but you try not to dwell on things. You try your best, especially with fatal fires. They are more difficult because there was a loss of life, or several. Last year our office investigated fires that involved 49 fatalities. I don’t count the ones I’ve been to.”

Partners for life

On most of her fire scene investigations, Geary works with her canine partner, Zena. The two first met February 12, 2017. She smiles, “Zena was my early Valentine’s Day present.”

The initial training for a canine is an eight-week program at the Fire Academy.

“It is intense. The dogs learn how to do scent impressions, finding the scent in a fire scene. There is a lot of training. The reward aspect is a game of tug of war with a towel. For the dogs, it is similar to a game of hide-and-seek. If they know the scent they are looking for, and find it, they get to play tug of war.

“My job is most rewarding because Zena does a good job. She loves it. We collect evidence at the scene. When we get the results back from a forensic lab with a positive confirmation, I know she did her job very well,” Geary said. “On a fire scene, only one canine is allowed to work with two or more investigators.”

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ON THE SCENE – State fire investigators search for the cause of a multi-fatal residential structure fire that occurred in April 2018 in Greene County. (Below) Fire investigators begin the investigation process for the cause of a fire at a business in Cayuga County in October 2018. — Photos courtesy of the NYS Office of Fire Prevention and Control

OFPC has five canine units. Three are in Albany, and one each in Syracuse and Binghamton. Zena is the first German shepherd added to the unit. The trainers screen different dogs at shelters, and some are donated. Most of the units use Labradors or golden retrievers. They also have one German short-haired pointer. All the dogs must have what they call “high-play drive.”

When off the job, Zena lives with Geary and her husband, and their “personal” dog, Tiller. Zena will work until she is about 10-years old, assuming her health allows it.

The canines live with their partners “forever.”

Table of Contents – March 2019

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