The Blair County's Sheriff's Department may soon get a bomb-sniffing dog.
When Sheriff Mitch Cooper addressed Tyrone Borough Council members Monday, he commended police for the hard work they do to fight crime, including through the Drug Task Force and by using drug-sniffing dogs.
However, he told them, "There is one unmet need here in Blair County, and that is the need for an explosives-detection dog."
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Logan Township police officer Matt Lutz works with his dog, Vilo, on Friday afternoon
Cooper pointed to recent incidents: a May 20 suspicious-briefcase scare at a 17th Street Sheetz, a May 25 threat that closed Williamsburg Elementary School and a suspicious note found May 31 that shut down part of the Plank Road Commons parking lot.
When those threats come in, it takes a long time to get a dog from surrounding counties, Cooper said.
"I'm sure you can agree that, should you find yourself in a situation where a bomb threat is called in to your place of business, or a municipal building, or a school, it can cause great anxiety and a large amount of time that is devoted ... from conducting business."
A threat at the Blair County Courthouse in Hollidaysburg once caused the building to be shut down, he said, and it took three hours before a dog became available for use.
He's hoping that will no longer be a problem.
Cooper said he's been working with Agent James Walstrom of the Attorney General's Bureau of Narcotics Investigation to secure a dog through the U.S. military. There is program in place where, once a dog is retired from service, it can be turned over to law-enforcement agencies, he said.
He also said he's been able to secure a donation to pay for the dog handler's training, although the donor wishes to remain anonymous.
The handler will be a sheriff's deputy, the dog will live with that person.
Previous attempts to acquire a bomb-sniffing dog have been met with resistance from the county commissioners, but Cooper said he's done the leg work to acquire the funding himself. He also has contacted the county's insurance provider and said there would be no extra insurance policy needed.
"If we are successful with this, we will raise the money," Cooper said. "It won't come out of the county's coffers."
One of the last puzzle pieces might have fallen into place a week ago, when Tyrone Borough Council members voted to donate a vehicle to transport the dog.
Cooper originally asked council members to donate a retired police cruiser, a 2008 Dodge Charger.
After some deliberation and realizing that its last cruiser fetched $6,000 when sold, council members instead agreed to donate a 2005 Dodge Durango already equipped with a dog crate.
Borough Manager Phyllis Garhart said she called Cooper Tuesday to confirm the donation of the Durango. He is to look at it and make sure it is suitable for the job.
The vehicle, despite its high 100,000-plus mileage, will be a great help, Cooper said, and the mileage isn't much of a concern because it won't be needed for roving patrols.
"Our primary areas are the courthouse and county-owned buildings," he said.
Commissioner Diane Meling said after talking with Cooper, she also sees no problem with plans moving forward to acquire the dog.
One of her main concerns after insurance, she said, was what would happen to the dog after it ceased to be a county employee, of sorts.
But Cooper assured her, she said, that the dog - and all associated costs - would fall to its handler, who would become the dog's owner and keep it as a pet.
With no cost to the county and no other issues to resolve, Meling said hopefully the dog will be "an asset we would never need to use."
Cooper said the dog should become available within the next 30 days, and because it's already highly trained, handler training time would be only about six weeks.
Although he still has some fundraising to do, Cooper said the process is moving forward.
Once everything falls into place, the dog will be used to sweep the courthouse daily, Cooper said, and will be on call should an incident arise within the county.
"There have been a couple of occasions where we could have used the assistance" of a trained dog, he said.