Personnel: Bomb-sniffing dog pays dividends

Lily the bomb dog was an asset Wednesday night to county officials and police and emergency personnel who were confronted with bomb threats at the Blair County Courthouse.

The threats were emailed to WTAJ-TV and the Altoona Mirror, said Hollidaysburg Police Chief Jeffrey Ketner.

The dog enabled first responders to immediately begin a search of the courthouse.

The 5-year-old Belgian Malinois, which served with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, is now part of the Blair County Sheriff’s Department. Lily registered a “hit” on a box in the purchasing agent’s office in the basement of the new section of the courthouse.

Ketner said that after focusing her attention on the box, Lily was taken outside and then brought back into the four-story building.

Again the dog registered a hit on the same box. The box contained items being stored in a corner of the office in preparation for installation of a new sound system in the commissioners meeting room.

Sound engineer Phil Reigh from Bellwood said the project is due to begin next week, and he expressed surprise that one of his boxes would alert a bomb-sniffing dog.

He was contacted by the Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Holly Garner late Wednesday night and explained to her he did not know what would have caused the dog to register an alert.

On Thursday, he told the Mirror that some of the equipment for the sound project came from China and that there was Styrofoam in the boxes, but he had no explanation for the alert.

Ketner said that dog is trained to alert on certain substances including those in the chloride family. He believes that the box might have been handled by a person who had delivered ice melter, possibly magnesium chloride, to a store.

A search of the courthouse Wednesday evening turned up no bomb, and the courthouse was operating as usual Thursday morning.

The person who sent three emailed threats – two to WTAJ-TV and one to the Mirror – was apparently upset over an upcoming trial.

But there were no significant trials on Thursday, just routine court pretrial hearings and a session of protection-from-abuse court.

Ketner said police are now focusing on the emails, attempting to trace them. He said progress has been made.

Hollidaysburg police are cooperating with Pennsylvania state police at Hollidaysburg.

The threats resulted in the evacuation of many residents who lived near the courthouse.

The threats were relayed to county officials by the 911 Center, and according to Ketner and commissioners Terry Tomassetti and Ted Beam, the response went well.

Beam, who is the commissioner in charge of county buildings, said the response from the Sheriff’s Department and emergency personnel was “coordinated and well-organized … everybody working together.”

He said it was “a tremendously cooperative atmosphere.”

Tomassetti, who was at the scene with Beam, said the search of the courthouse and evacuations went smoothly, and that brought him to the subject of Lily, the recently acquired canine who works with Deputy R.J. Peo.

Previously officials had to wait for a bomb dog to arrive. On Wednesday night, the search of the building was able to begin immediately using Lily, said Tomassetti.

Most of the building had been cleared between 10 and 10:30 p.m.

Ketner concluded that Lily is “already paying dividends.”