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2 canines detect explosives for Hall County Sheriffs Office
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Hall County Sheriff’s deputy Rusty Blalock puts Star through her bomb search routine outside the county courthouse Wednesday. The 6-year-old black Lab can also find spent ammo casings at crime scenes, Blalock said. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Police officers come in all shapes and sizes. Some are tall while others are short. Some have two legs while others have four.

Star and Kreso are two members of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office K-9 unit, and they specialize in finding explosives and ammunition.

"I live on a dirt road, and when I get home and let (Star) out of the truck, she’ll run down one side of the dirt road, cross the street and run all the way down the other side," said Rusty Blalock, a Hall County sheriff’s deputy and Star’s handler. "She’s making sure there (are) no bombs there."

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, explosive detector dogs are the most effective countermeasure available to bomb threats. In Hall County, the dogs regularly inspect the courthouse and other downtown government buildings for bombs and can be used to find ammunition or firearms at crime scenes for evidence. In fact, they were used just last week when a bomb threat was scrawled on a bathroom wall at Chestatee Academy of Inquiry and Talent Development.

Since 2008, Hall County’s K-9 unit has responded to 49 bomb threats and suspicious packages and 12 calls for gun searches. The K-9 unit also has conducted 1,035 sweeps of the county courthouse, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Nicole Bailes said. However, the team hasn’t found any bombs in several years.

"They are accurate enough that if someone said there was a bomb in my house and I searched it with Star, I would let my family back in," Blalock said.

Though trained bomb dogs can cost as much as $12,000, Star and Kreso cost the county a collective $5, excluding the cost of sustenance and upkeep. Kreso, a 6-year-old German shepherd, was used to inspect cargo ships for explosives before Hall County adopted him after his owner switched the focus of his business. Star, a 7-year-old black Labrador retriever, is a retired Marine Corps dog that was used to detect improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan.

Because of Star’s experience in Afghanistan, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and becomes anxious when riding in a moving car.

Handlers and dogs must maintain certification, which requires a yearly test in which the team must detect explosive samples with at least 90 percent accuracy. Before officers can even become handlers, they must complete a monthlong basic course in Savannah.

Joel Buffington has been Kreso’s handler for about a year. The two became certified last October.

"I started helping Rusty with explosive training and I became interested in it," he said. "I’ve always loved dogs, and the science behind explosives is interesting."

Both dogs undergo training multiple times a week, which are often purposefully designed to teach the dog to cope with confusion or distraction. Each dog is capable of detecting 26 different odors related to explosives or ammunition.

The explosive detection team isn’t confined to the borders of Hall County, and they periodically assist other agencies.

"We can be called to assist anywhere that in a reasonable distance, whether it’s Union County, Habersham County or Atlanta," Blalock said. "If it is in Savannah, then we would have to get permission."

The county hopes to get several years worth of service from the dogs before they have to be retired, in which case they will likely stay with their handlers until they die. However, the sheriff’s office would like to procure one or two more dogs, Blalock said, but only if the price is right. Future dogs will likely come from the same Marine dog vendor Star came from.

"It is hard to justify buying (an) $8,000 or $12,000 dog, but it is just as hard to pass up a $5 trained dog," Blalock said.

Until then, the safety of Hall County and the city of Gainesville rests partially in the paws — and noses — of Star and Kreso.

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