BY CHERESE COBB, FREELANCER
These gunsniffing K-9s are patrolling Mayfair Mall with security officers to find firearms,which aren’t allowed in the shopping center, even with a permit.
Mayfair Mall launched the Vapor Wake Public Safety Canine Detection Program (VWK9) after a 15-year-old male shot 17 rounds that left eight people injured. He faces eight counts of first-degree reckless injury and one count of possessing a firearm while under age 18. FETCH isn’t naming the suspect because he’s being charged as a juvenile.
The VWK9 is in partnership with Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Auburn, Ala. Dr. Paul Waggoner, co-director of the college’s Canine Performance Sciences program (CPS), and a team of researchers began developing Vapor Wake technology nearly two decades ago to search people and baggage for dangerous chemicals.
Since 2004, it’s produced more than 165 Vapor Wake K-9s. They’re most widely recognized for their participation in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City and in the 2012 Presidential Inauguration. However, they also work with Amtrak, Disney, Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the U.S. Capitol Police. They’re trained to check the air for thermal “plumes” that may contain explosive particles. Thermal plumes are produced by body heat and are invisible to the naked eye. When people stand still, they go upward. If people begin moving, they trail behind them. It’s like how a boat or a flock of geese leave a wake pattern in the water.
Auburn University breeds 60 Vapor Wake K-9s per year. Labrador Retrievers make up 95 percent of its dogs. The other 5 percent are floppy-eared, sporty breeds, such as the German Shorthair. Once a litter is born, the puppies’ training begins. For the first six months, they’re introduced to different people, sounds and surfaces. Then they enter a four-month canine program in federal prison systems in Georgia and Florida. When the K-9s are a year old, they’re sent to VWK9 in Anniston, Ala. They’re trained for 15 to 18 months, compared to only two to four months for standard explosive detection dogs.
While traditional bomb-sniffing K-9s can only detect statically placed explosives, Vapor Wake K-9s can pinpoint explosives on a moving target. That’s why they cost around $50,000 each. Their certification is only good for a year. Then they need to be recertified with their handler to test their operational skills. Dan Ryan, senior vice president of Security at Brookfield Properties, says that Mayfair Mall didn’t receive any private or public grants for the VWK9 program. Its K-9s are provided by Allied Universal Services.
“For operational purposes, we aren’t able to discuss the number of dogs involved in the program, their work schedules or their names. The dogs range from 1 to 7 years of age,” Ryan says. “Security officers are responsible for their assigned canine partners 24/7. They’re paid through a happy life filled with food, water, friendship and the occasional game of tug of war or fetch with a tennis ball.”
Instead of being obedient to their handlers, they’re only obedient to the odor of a gun or bomb. Security officers are trained to walk behind their K-9s through a crowd of people who are screened without physical contact. The K-9s nostrils move independently allowing them to determine the direction of an odor. They also smell one drop of Kool-Aid in 10 Olympic-size swimming pools.
“The Vapor Wake K-9s could accidentally hit on a customer who’d recently come from a range or someone who’d been out hunting earlier in the day,” Ryan says. That’s because their sense of smell is almost 40 times greater than ours. They even can separate aromas into individual scents, no matter how nuanced. “This is why our approach is customer-friendly. Once a patron is identified as a potential firearm carrier, mall security officers use handheld metal detectors to verify that a weapon is or isn’t present,” Ryan says.
If the customer is cooperative and the hit is positive, they’re asked to remove the weapon from the property. If the patron is uncooperative, they’re asked to leave. Depending on the circumstance, the police also may intervene. When firearm detections occur, they’re brought to the attention of the police officers that patrol Mayfair Mall, so they can be ready to assist if needed.
“At Mayfair Mall, our highest priority is the safety of everyone that walks through our doors. The VWK9 helps keep guns out of the mall by focusing only on those that may have violated our ‘no firearms’ rule,” Ryan says. “While many of our safety protocols happen behind the scenes, this one is visible to the public. Our hope is that the presence of the dogs will not only aid in the detection of firearms but bring an additional sense of security to our guests and employees.”